“1927, 1928, 1929 were the happiest years of my life. Why? Because they were productive. A good staunch courageous pal – Anne [Dangar] – and the feeling I was really getting somewhere with my painting. The ‘woman’s role’ was reduced to a minimum. I could work every day at my painting and there was the joy of discovering Paris in our own way.”
As an artist and teacher Grace Crowley played a central role in the dissemination of modern art in Sydney during the 1930s and together with Ralph Balson introduced abstract painting to Australia in the 1940s. Born into an affluent pastoralist family at Cobbadah, New South Wales in 1890, Crowley showed early promise. She studied under Julian Ashton at the Sydney Art School from 1915 to 1918 where she met fellow student Anne Dangar, who was to become a life-long friend. From 1918 until 1923 Crowley taught at the Sydney Art School and gained a modest reputation as a painter of conventional landscapes and scenes of rural life.
In 1926 Crowley and Dangar left Sydney for Paris. Crowley was introduced to cubism and abstraction during her studies with André Lhote at his academy in Montparnasse and in several private lessons with Albert Gleizes. In 1928 she travelled to the south of France with Dangar and their friend Dorrit Black to study at Lhote’s summer school in Mirmande. In France, Crowley learnt a style of geometric cubism that she introduced to Australian artists when she returned to Sydney in 1930. Upon her arrival home she showed some of her French paintings in a group exhibition at Macquarie Galleries and in 1932 she held a solo exhibition at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre in Sydney, where she also taught.
Crowley left the Modern Art Centre at the end of 1932 to establish the Crowley-Fizelle School with the painter Rah Fizelle. During the 1930s she was the nucleus of a small and supportive circle of progressive artists that included Frank and Margel Hinder, Eleonore Lange and Ralph Balson which met regularly in her studio at 215a George Street. In 1937 they formalised their association as the George Street Group and exhibited together in Exhibition 1 in 1939. From this time Crowley and Balson shared her studio exclusively and developed their work towards geometric abstraction. Crowley exhibited her first abstract painting in 1942. Her significance as an abstract artist was internationally recognised when she was included in the Dictionary of Abstract Painting by the Belgian art historian Michel Seuphor in 1957.
Crowley and Balson formed a close and productive partnership that continued until his death in 1964. They travelled to Europe and America in 1960-1961 where Crowley experimented with a looser style of abstraction by trailing and splattering paint onto the canvas. Only one of these paintings appears to have survived the general destruction of works she undertook when forced to vacate her George Street studio in 1971. Consequently, only a small body of her work exists, many of which are now held by public galleries.
Crowley's impact was recognised in a 1975 retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales organised by Daniel Thomas and through her inclusion in Janine Burke’s milestone publication Australian women artists, one hundred years 1840-1940 in 1980. In 2006, the National Gallery of Australia presented a major retrospective, Grace Crowley: Being Modern, which toured to six state and regional galleries. Crowley died on 21 April 1979 at home in Manly. Self-effacing yet determined, her belief in the importance of modernism and abstraction placed her at the vanguard of Australian art from the late 1920s through to the early 1960s.
Biography written and edited by Dr Nicola Teffer in collaboration with Elena Taylor and NGA curatorial and research staff as part of Know My Name.
Grace Crowley by Elena Taylor
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
1947 was a highpoint of Grace Crowley’s artistic life. At the age of 57, she was in the midst of the third, and greatest, phase of her long career. Crowley made her own way to abstraction, and her carefully orchestrated arrangements of colours and forms are uniquely her own. Abstract painting 1947 shows just how far she had come. Irregularly shaped planes of vibrant colour appear to jostle against each other, occasionally slipping in front of or sliding behind their neighbours. Looping lines of different colours meander freely across the composition, and the overall effect recalls the dissonance and improvisation of jazz, the painting’s musicality reinforced by the clef‑like motif in the lower left corner.
Crowley’s artistic journey began in 1915 at the Julian Ashton Art School in Sydney. But it was her four years in France, from 1926–29, that transformed her from a painter of Australian pastoral scenes to a dedicated modernist and internationalist. Studying with first generation cubists Andre Lhote and briefly, but significantly, Albert Gleizes, Crowley absorbed ideas that informed her work over the following decade.
Returning to Australia with a sophisticated understanding of modern art and Cubism, Crowley played a central role in introducing modernism to Sydney. She taught briefly at Dorrit Black’s Modern Art Centre before establishing her own art school in partnership with Rah Fizelle in 1932. Located in lower George Street, the school became the meeting place for a small group of progressive artists, including Frank Hinder and Ralph Balson, who kept their sights on the latest developments in France and America. Known as the ‘George Street Group’, in 1937 they formalised their association, drafting a manifesto of their shared aims, and planned an exhibition to showcase their work.
Two years later Crowley and Balson struck out on their own and working together in her studio developed their art towards geometric abstraction. In 1941 Balson held the first solo exhibition of non‑objective paintings in Australia and the following year Crowley exhibited her first abstract work.
Never a prolific painter, the 1940s and early 1950s were Crowley’s most productive years. She participated in landmark exhibitions and in 1948 taught the first course on abstract art. While Crowley’s abstract paintings were out of step with the prevailing direction in Australian art and largely ignored by the art establishment, in 1957 her inclusion in Belgian art historian Michel Seuphor’s encyclopaedic Dictionary of abstract painting, the most important worldwide account of abstraction, positioned her work within a global context. Determined, thoughtful and constantly pushing her art in new directions, a leader of modernism and pioneer of abstraction, Crowley made a remarkable contribution to Australian art, her abstract paintings her greatest achievement.
Citation: Cite this excerpt as: Taylor, Elena. "Grace Crowley" in N Bullock, K Cole, D Hart & E Pitt (eds), Know My Name, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2020, pp 88–89.
Image caption: Grace Crowley, Abstract painting, 1947, oil on cardboard, 60.7 x 83.3 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, purchased 1959.
ELENA TAYLOR is Senior Curator, University of New South Wales Art Collection, and was formerly Curator, Australian Painting and Sculpture, National Gallery of Australia, and Curator, Australian Art, National Gallery of Victoria.