“I wish above all things … to associate my work with the portrayal of my own sunny land and her peoples.”
Hilda Rix Nicholas by Anne Gray
Excerpted from the Know My Name publication (2020).
She sits with a hand on her hip, her head tilted and neck extended, looking out from the corner of her eyes. It is as if she is saying ‘look at me’. But is she identifiably an Australian? She’s elegantly dressed, but not quite French chic, nor English genteel. Somewhere in between.
Why did the Australian artist, Hilda Rix Nicholas, identify her subject as ‘Une Australienne’? Was it because in 1926 in Paris, when she painted this work, Australians were highly regarded in France (as a result of our soldiers’ activities on the Western Front during the First World War)? Certainly, Rix Nicholas commented, ‘I wish above all things … to associate my work with the portrayal of my own sunny land and her peoples.(1)
Furthermore, in the early years of the twentieth century, partially following James McNeill Whistler’s use of musical titles, artists often gave their portraits generic titles in order to direct viewers to look at their paintings as a work of art, and not just a ‘likeness’ of a particular person.(2)
Rix Nicholas was born in Ballarat in 1884 and studied in Melbourne. She then travelled to Europe with her mother and sister to further her studies in London and Paris. She spent several summers at the artists’ colony at Etaples in northern France, and travelled to Morocco where she was inspired by the colour and light.
During the First World War her mother and sister died from typhoid. In 1916, she married the Australian soldier, Major George Matson Nicholas, but he was killed in action in France almost immediately after their wedding. She was devastated.
The subject of the portrait is Rix Nicholas’s friend Dorothy Richmond, who she had met in Sydney following her return to Australia at the end of the war. With Richmond she travelled to the town of Delegate on the southern border of New South Wales, where she began to paint Australian landscapes. While staying there, she became a friend of Ned Wright and his cousin Edgar, a grazier. Rix Nicholas and Richmond travelled to Europe in 1924 and this portrait was painted in their studio in Paris. In 1926 she returned to Australia and in 1928 married Edgar. Their marriage was a happy one, and enabled ‘the fulfillment of her pastoral dreams’.(3) She died in 1961, aged 76.
Hilda Rix Nicholas made a significant contribution to Australian art during the first half of the twentieth century, painting figure subjects and landscapes with vigour and masterful draughtsmanship, frequently using luminous colour.
(1) Hilda Rix Nicholas letter to John Robert Chisman, quoted in John Pigot, Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her life and art, Miegunyah Press, Melbourne, 2000, p 56.
(2) It was one of eight pictures Rix Nicholas showed in the Salon of 1926 and the judges were impressed, making her an Associate of the Societé Nationale des Beaux-Arts.
(3) Pigot, p 60.
ANNE GRAY is an independent curator and art historian, who was Head of Australian Art at the National Gallery of Australia from 2001–16.