Grace Crowley
being modern

23 December 2006 – 6 May 2007

Introduction | Conservation | Crowley works in the National Gallery collection

Essay 1 | 2 | 3 | 4


Grace Crowley ' Ena and the turkeys' 1924 oil on canvas Private collection Grace Crowley  'Sailors and models'  c. 1928  oil on canvas  Collection of the National Gallery of Australia  Gift of Grace Buckley in memory of Grace Crowley, 1980 enlarge

The revelation of Paris
learning cubism

Paris was a joyous revelation to Crowley: ‘The lace shops … the antique shops … the cheese shops … the markets … the shops that sold reproductions, and O! ye gods! the bookshops.The bookshops in Paris are a paradise upon earth.’1 After a short stay with friends in the south of France, and a visit to Cézanne’s studio in Aix-en-Provence, Crowley and Dangar arrived in Paris in the spring of 1926 and moved into a pension in the Latin Quarter.

Paris was the setting for Crowley’s wholehearted conversion to modernism and the beginning of her lifelong identification with the avant-garde.She came into contact with some of the leading artists and theorists of the cubist movement and was part of the artistic milieu in Paris at the time when it was the undisputed centre of modern art.Yet, on her arrival, she and Dangar sought to enrol in one of the conservative art schools.After visiting the École des Beaux-Arts and the Académie Julian (where Ashton had studied), they began working atelier libre at Académie Colarossi where they had access to a life model but no formal instruction.

Still searching for a teacher, at the 1926 Spring Salon, Crowley and Dangar were impressed by a portrait by Louis Roger, a professor at the École des Beaux-Arts, with whom they arranged to take private lessons.Dangar and Crowley continued their studies with Roger throughout 1926; however, by spring of the next year, Crowley had become disillusioned.In a letter to Ashton she wrote that she had gained ‘a much finer “finish” in portraiture’ but ‘apart from that I’ve gained nothing (from him), but I don’t expect to, and didn’t want to’.2 Her low estimation of Roger may also have been influenced by the fact that a portrait completed under his tuition was rejected for the 1927 Spring Salon, while her Australian work Mary and the baby was accepted.

After a year in Paris, Crowley had become receptive to modern art, writing to Ashton that ‘Paris is full of rotten shows of pseudo-modern work, but my word, you come across the real stuff now and then – modern, mind you, the sincerity and force of which makes you sit up and think’.3 By early 1927 she had set her sights on studying at the Académie Lhote in the rue d’Odessa, reporting to Ashton that Dangar had already left Roger and that ‘I am going to Lhote’s myself in a fortnight’s time.His composition interests me tremendously … Lhote’s is really a very, very serious hard-working and sincere school, and I hope to learn much from it’.4 André Lhote’s academy, established in 1922, was regarded at the time as one of the leading modern schools in Paris and attracted many foreign  students, particularly English and American ones.While Lhote was one of the original cubists, exhibiting in the 1911 Salon des Indépendants and in the 1912 Salon de la Section d’Or, his work remained essentially representational and rooted in Cézanne while incorporating cubist motifs and techniques.His teaching emphasised pictorial composition, the simplification of forms into basic geometry and the use of colour to integrate forms.

Crowley’s response to Lhote’s teaching was immediate: ‘To my amazement his teaching was only the confirmation of the WANT I had been feeling for so long without knowing exactly what the want was.I feel rather dazed, but very happy, bewilderingly happy.’5 Under Lhote’s instruction, Crowley was to learn an entirely new way of working: ‘For the first time I heard about dynamic symmetry and the section d’or – that it was necessary to make a PLAN for a painting of many figures as an architect does for a building and THEN construct your personages upon it.’6 This idea of construction was widespread in much avant-garde art of the postwar years – a reaction to the destruction that the war had brought.

One of the most ambitious exercises set by Lhote for his students was a group composition incorporating several figures.Crowley remembered that Lhote posed ‘a nude model of a woman in the morning: a sailor in the afternoon, or two sailors, and at the end of the fortnight we were to produce a composition from these drawings’, an exercise that, as Mary Eagle has pointed out, is reminiscent of Picasso’s studies for Les Demoiselles d’Avignon 1907.7 Crowley completed quickly drawn studies capturing the pose of the model as well as more finished works such as Composition study: seated female nude c.1928.This drawing shows Crowley’s solid academic training in anatomy and also the influence of Lhote in the simplification of the contours of the figure into straight and curved lines and the volumetric modelling of the forms.Unlike at the Sydney Art School, the model is not shown in isolation but is posed against a background, a technique that Lhote used to encourage his students to link the two through the blending of forms into each other.In another drawing, Study for Sailors and models: sailor with accordion c.1928, Crowley has used some of the array of abstract lines and symbols that were on the wall of Lhote’s studio to emphasise the curve of the sailor’s back and shoulders.

Grace Crowley Study for 'Sailors and models' c.1928, pencil on paper, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Grace Buckley in memory of Grace Crowley, 1980 Grace Crowley Study for 'Sailors and models'  c.1928, pencil on paper, Collection of the National Gallery of Australia, Gift of Grace Buckley in memory of Grace Crowley, 1980 enlarge

From studies such as these, Crowley completed the large-scale and detailed compositional drawing Study for Sailors and models c.1928, incorporating five figures.8 Following Lhote’s teaching to ‘search dimensions of [the] canvas and fit models and surroundings into these’9, the entire work is constructed according to the principles of the golden mean (section d’or).The dimension of the paper is a golden rectangle and the underdrawing of intersecting diagonal lines has the same proportions.Crowley carefully placed her figures according to this underdrawing.The centre line of the standing male figure on the right runs along one internal division, while the navel of the female nude on the left is exactly at the point of intersection of the diagonal axis of this rectangle.

In the painting Sailors and models c.1928 Crowley radically altered the composition, changing three of the five figures.
In doing so, she created a triangular composition with the sailor and accordion at its apex.The two female nudes fit within this shape, while another golden rectangle is created by the darker colours around the two sailors on the left.The painting unites the figures in a way that the drawing does not; however, while it is competently composed, the treatment of its subject is not convincing.The work remains a student exercise, and although Crowley never again attempted such a complex arrangement of figures, what she learnt from it nevertheless was pivotal in the development of her painting technique.All her subsequent works made while in France were constructed according to the geometry of the golden mean, and it was the basis of her last figurative works into the late 1930s.

It is only when Crowley began working in a purely abstract manner in the 1940s that the golden mean no longer underpinned her compositions.However, the manner of working – whereby individual elements were carefully considered, arranged and rearranged, inserted or deleted, until the final composition was settled on – still informed Crowley’s abstract paintings.She always acknowledged that to Lhote she owed ‘the first realisation that there were abstract elements which were a vital necessity to be considered in constructing a solid piece of painting’.10

As a result of Crowley’s increasing interest in pictorial construction, the actual subject of the work became less important to her.While portraiture was to be her main genre, many of her sitters were professional models and her purpose was not to express something of their personality.For Crowley, painting was an essentially rational and objective act, undertaken according to a set of pictorial principles.The artist’s individuality was expressed in their sensitivity to the placement of forms
and colours rather than in the work’s subject matter.

After the end of their first semester at Académie Lhote, Crowley and Dangar spent the summer of 1927 in England and Ireland, briefly visiting Douglas Dundas and Rah Fizelle, both former students at the Sydney Art School, in London.By this stage, all thoughts of studying at the Slade had gone.On their return, Crowley and Dangar began the new academic year with Lhote.Much of his teaching involved analysing the works of the old masters and for Crowley it was a revelation to find that many of these works were constructed on a geometrical basis.In particular, Lhote admired Jean-Auguste-Dominique Ingres, whom he considered the originator of abstract form in painting.Ingres’s influence on Crowley is most evident in her Portrait study of late1928, which draws heavily on his Madame Devaucay de Nittis 1807.11
Crowley adopts Ingres’s device of the round-backed chair and converging diagonals to focus attention upon the sitter’s face.The result is classical, yet modern at the same time.Her Portrait of Lucie Beynis (a professional model who may also have modelled for Portrait study) painted c.1929 is one of Crowley’s most successful works.She creates a dramatic contrast between the black of the dress and the white collar and the strong diagonal movement of the torso with the vertical of the forearm and hand.The sitter’s averted gaze and relaxed pose creates a mood of introspection and languor.

In contrast to the elegance and refinement of Portrait of Lucie Beynis, Crowley’s undated painting of the African model Olga stands out for its raw expressiveness.While based on drawings of the same model, the work is painted with an immediacy unmatched in any other of Crowley’s works.The sitter’s nude torso is rendered massive and solid through simple volumetric forms, her arms and hands simplified to their most basic elements.The broad mask-like features of the woman’s face recall the stylisations of African art.Yet the emphatic ‘s’ contour of the hips is pure Lhote geometric simplification, and the strong diagonals running though the composition are in accordance with the proportions of the golden mean.

In Paris, Crowley and Dangar threw themselves into the life of the Latin Quarter, frequenting such cafés as the Dôme
with other students and avidly visiting galleries.They also maintained their links with Australia, corresponding regularly with Ashton and friends from the Sydney Art School and receiving a steady stream of Australian visitors.Many of their letters were published in Undergrowth, the school’s journal, providing valuable first-hand accounts of their experiences in Paris.In December 1927, Crowley and Dangar were joined in Paris by Dorrit Black, who also took an apartment in the Montparnasse district and enrolled at the Académie Lhote.12

In the summer of 1928, Crowley, Dangar and Black enrolled in Lhote’s outdoor painting school at the small village of Mirmande, near Montélimar in the Midi region.Lhote had begun writing his treatise on landscape painting, Traité du Paysage, and Crowley recalled that they received the full benefit: ‘We got plenty of Cézanne this time and the early works of cubism – more dynamic symmetry, more painters of landscape, Breughel, Patinir, El Greco etc, anyone who composed landscape, Poussin, Seurat etc’.13 Crowley vividly remembered prints of Picasso’s ‘cube-like buildings’, possibly his proto-cubist views of the village of Horta de Ebro from 1909: ‘very familiar to everyone now but terrific for “une nouveau” just then’.14

Grace Crowley 'Portrat of Lucie Beynis' c.1929, oil on canvas on hardboard, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Purchased 1965 Grace Crowley  'Portrat of Lucie Beynis'  c.1929 oil on canvas on hardboard, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Purchased 1965 enlarge

In Mirmande Crowley completed several major paintings including the monumental landscape Mirmande 1928, a view of the town seen from below, with the mountain dominating the painting and rising up behind a ‘cubified’ village.While Crowley was once again on familiar ground, painting the landscape outdoors as she had done in Australia, this time she was asked to see it through new eyes.She recalled that ‘When [Lhote] saw my first efforts “en plein air” he remarked scathingly, “Ah l’Impressionisme”, so I set to work to overthrow impressionism’.15 Her solution was to consider the landscape as though it were a solid piece of sculpture: ‘The hill which had refused to become solid I thought of now as a sphere, trees pointing up to the church on top of the hill were cylinders, the buildings cubes.’16  The overwhelming influence of Lhote on his students is clear when Crowley’s Mirmande is compared to Dangar’s and Black’s paintings of the same subject.The three artists produced near identical works, each attempting to put in place Lhote’s teachings about colour, form and composition, with Black’s Mirmande c.1928 the most severely geometricised.

Girl with goats 1928 is another ambitious work in which she places a figure within a landscape.Comparing it with the similarly bucolic themed Ena and the turkeys, completed only four years before, shows the extent of the transformation in Crowley’s art.The triangular composition draws our attention to the girl’s face at the apex of one triangle.Following Lhote’s teaching of ‘passage’, forms are harmoniously integrated and blended into each other through the use of a limited palette of earth colours that blend into each other.It is one of Crowley’s most accomplished works, demonstrating how completely Crowley had assimilated Lhote’s lessons on composition.However, the exquisite draughtsmanship and subtle colour harmonies are Crowley’s own, as are the emotional restraint and structural rigour of the composition.The idealised and classical subject of Girl with goats, and many works that Crowley completed with Lhote, accords with the desire for clarity and logic, the ‘return to order’ prevalent in French art after the First World War.

After the end of the summer school, Dangar was to return to Australia as she had used up all her savings.As Crowley continued to receive an allowance from her older brother, she had decided to stay on in France.After Mirmande, Crowley and Dangar travelled through Italy visiting art galleries for several weeks to Naples where Dangar embarked in October 1928.Their parting was an emotional wrench, Dangar recalling:

‘I will never forget that dreadful night at Naples when that one tiny form which was my world was getting farther and farther from me … Oh my friend how long?’17

After a short stay in Ravello on the Amalfi coast, Crowley returned to Paris at the end of December and, together with Black, continued to paint at the Académie Lhote during the winter and spring of 1929.The year 1929 was a breakthrough year for Crowley.In February, Girl with goats and possibly Portrait study were selected for the breakaway Salon des Artistes Français Indépendants and hung alongside Lhote’s work.Her works were well received, with one reviewer commenting: ‘Among the American exhibitors, many of whom are women, there is a definite Lhote influence, and in one case, or perhaps two, those of Mrs Genevieve Sargeant of San Francisco and Grace Crowley’s ‘Girl and goats‘ the pupils are at least as good as the master.’18 It also brought Crowley’s work to the attention of the Galerie Bernheim-Jeune, one of the leading contemporary art galleries in Paris, who wrote to Crowley offering her an exhibition.

Yet by the time the invitation arrived Crowley already knew that she was to return to Australia and did not take up the gallery’s offer.Crowley’s family insisted that she come home to take on some family responsibilities.Crowley’s mother was an invalid, confined to a wheelchair, and much of her care had fallen to Crowley’s sister Florence, by this stage married with young children.It is possible that the Depression, which had begun in 1929, and the worsening economic climate also had a bearing on the family’s decision.Crowley’s niece recalled that there was a significant reorganisation of the family at this time, with family members returning to Cobbadah Station during the Depression.

Back in Australia and unhappy with teaching at the Sydney Art School, in early 1929 Dangar wrote to Crowley about Albert Gleizes, whose work she had admired in Paris.Gleizes was a significant cubist painter and theorist who had exhibited alongside Robert Delaunay, Fernand Léger and Jean Metzinger in the 1911 Salon des Indépendants, which had attracted public attention to cubism for the first time.Gleizes wrote Du Cubisme with Metzinger in 1912 and helped found the Salon de la Section d’Or.Dangar had read his treatise La peinture et ses lois on the journey home and, much impressed, asked Crowley to send to her any of his books she could find.

Grace Crowley 'Mirmande' 1928 oil on canvas, Art Gallery of South Australia, Bequest of Grace Crowley 1979 Grace Crowley 'Mirmande'  1928 oil on canvas, Art Gallery of South Australia, Bequest of Grace Crowley 1979 enlarge

Crowley’s response was to contact Gleizes directly to ask for lessons for herself and Black.While Crowley’s intention was to transmit his methods of working to Dangar in Sydney, it is also likely that Crowley, anticipating her imminent return to Australia, wanted to absorb as much as possible before she left.In late 1929 she also briefly attended Amédée Ozenfant’s classes at Léger’s school, L’Académie Moderne, yet was disappointed: ‘I felt I should have that experience.But I wasn’t impressed at all.’19

Gleizes, however, was to make a profound and lasting impression on Crowley.At his Paris studio he gave Crowley
and Black a couple of lessons, demonstrating the compositional principles of translation and rotation put forward in La peinture et ses lois: translation was the lateral movement of planes describing space, while rotation was the circular movement of planes around an axis to embody time and rhythm.

By this time Gleizes’s work had become highly abstracted, and the exercises that Crowley did under his instruction prefigure her move into complete abstraction in the 1940s.At this time Crowley completed the series of gouache studies in the National Gallery of Australia collection, in which she experimented with variations of patterns, colours and shapes based on Gleizes’s principles, and the four drawings on tracing paper, including Cubist composition c.1929 in which Crowley developed an abstracted cubist composition.20  This process was later described by another of Gleizes’s students:

The composition of the form for the finished picture reaches its maturity through a number of different stages or tracings, super-imposed upon another; their foundation being the original angular construction.The paper used for drawing upon is the thinnest typewriting paper or tracing paper, so that the drawing underneath is clearly visible.21

Gleizes invited Crowley to visit his newly established artist colony at Moly-Sabata in Sablons, on the Rhône, Ardéche, where she could take further lessons with his student Robert Pouyaud and would later be joined by Gleizes.In October 1929, returning from a summer holiday in Italy, Crowley visited Moly-Sabata for approximately three weeks.Gleizes’s work made an immediate impression upon her.She was particularly impressed by two large religious works for the church at Sablons-Serrières, including a coronation of the Virgin (based on Fra Angelico’s Coronation of the Virgin in Florence) that were in Gleizes’s studio.In response, Crowley made a drawing, Cubist composition, study for a religious mural c.1929, based on Gleizes’s work.In another drawing on tracing paper she analysed the underlying pictorial structure of her drawing into a series of translated and rotated rectangles within a circular composition.The impact of this system of pictorial construction would be seen in Grace’s next major painting, the Portrait of Gwen Ridleyof 1930.However, it would be another decade before Crowley explored the potential of this system to generate totally abstract compositions.

Crowley’s contact with Gleizes was the catalyst for Dangar to return to France the following year to join Gleizes’s colony at Moly-Sabata.While Crowley’s direct contact with Gleizes was limited to the two short meetings in 1929, through her correspondence with Dangar during the 1930s and 1940s, Crowley had privileged access to Gleizes’s teaching and the latest developments in his art.Over time, Gleizes’s influence was to be more profound than that of Lhote on Crowley.Gleizes himself continued to regard Crowley as one of the members of his extended circle, in 1934 urging Dangar to ask Crowley to join the Abstraction–Création group, one of the most important forums for abstraction at this time.22

Many years later Crowley considered that

1927, 1928, 1929 were the happiest years of my life.Why? Because they were productive.A good staunch courageous pal – Anne – and the feeling I was really getting somewhere with my painting.The ‘woman’s role’ was reduced to a minimum.I could work everyday at my painting and there was the joy of discovering Paris in our own way.23

Crowley left Marseilles on 5 December 1929 on the RMS Chitral.After almost four years in Paris, Crowley identified herself wholly as part of the ‘modern movement’ and her art had undergone a profound transformation.Through her studies with Lhote and Gleizes, Crowley had a personal connection to some of the original cubists, and through Gleizes had become aware of the development of cubism towards abstraction.While her art remained within the conventions of Lhote’s teaching, she had become receptive to ideas that were only to find their full expression a decade later.

Crowley believed that she was being called back to Australia just at a time when things were starting to happen for her in Paris.There had been the favourable reviews, the invitation to exhibit and the valuable contacts within the art world she made.Her return was a turning point in her life and later she ‘often wondered what would have happened to me if I’d stayed in Paris’.24

1 Grace Crowley, ‘A letter’, Paris, 19 June 1926, in Undergrowth, September–October 1926.

2 Grace Crowley, undated correspondence with Julian Ashton, in ‘Learning in Paris’, Undergrowth, May–June 1927.

3Grace Crowley, undated correspondence with Julian Ashton, in ‘Learning in Paris’, Undergrowth, May–June 1927.

4Grace Crowley, undated correspondence with Julian Ashton, in ‘Learning in Paris’, Undergrowth, May–June 1927.

5Grace Crowley, ‘Letters from abroad’, Paris, 26 May, Undergrowth, October–November 1927.

6 Crowley in Burke, p.82.

7Grace Crowley, Grace Crowley, Archival art series, Smart St Films, Melbourne: Australian Film Institute, 1975.See Mary Eagle, Australian modern painting between the wars 1914–1939, Sydney: Bay Books, 1989, p.109.

8The NGA, the AGNSW and the NGV have Crowley’s figure studies for this work.

9Grace Crowley, handwritten notes of André Lhote’s lectures, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

10Renée Free, Balson Crowley Fizelle Hinder, Sydney: AGNSW, 1966, p.5.

11According to Daniel Thomas, Madame Devaucay de Nittiswas a work that Crowley ‘admired tremendously’ and kept a reproduction of all her life.

12See Dorrit Black, ‘Account of travel and work 1927–29’, Appendix 1, in North, p.139.

13Grace Crowley, handwritten biographical notes, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

14 Crowley in Burke,p.85.

15 Crowley in Burke,p.85.

16 Crowley in Burke,p.85.

17Anne Dangar, letter to Grace Crowley, c.May 1930, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

18New York Herald, 9 February 1929, press clipping in Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive, MS 1980.1.

19Grace Crowley, interview with James Gleeson, 25 August 1978, NGA Research Library, transcript, p.7

20Dorrit Black also made a set of gouaches, one of which is in the AGSA collection.

21Maine Jellert, lecture, sent by Anne Dangar to Grace Crowley, 1934, Grace Crowley Papers, AGNSW Research Library and Archive,
MS 1980.1.

22Dangar, Letter 11, March 1934, in Topliss, p.118.

23 Crowley in Burke, p.83.

24 Crowley in Burke, p.86.