“To give a sincere and truthful representation of a portion of the beauty of Nature, and to show the charm of light and shade, which I try to give forth in correct tones so as to give as nearly as possible an exact illusion of reality.” Clarice Beckett
Today’s featured artist is Clarice Beckett. One of my newsletter subscribers recommended I check out her work. She was unknown to me before that, which is surprising given her influence in the Australian art scene, her prolific activity with a brush, and the interesting story of her life. Let’s take a closer look at her life and work.
Overview of Her Life
Beckett was born in Casterton, Victoria, Australia, on 21 March 1887. She was a shy and artistic child. This shyness seems to be reflected in the paintings she would go on to create, such as Solitude.
(Sidenote: It’s interesting to think how our childhood and upbringing might influence our work as adults. I’m sure there’s a strong correlation, though I have nothing to back this up.)
She studied under two famous Australian artists: Frederick McCubbin and Max Meldrum. Not bad company to learn from! Meldrum seems to have had a stronger influence on Beckett’s life and work. He was the founder of Australian tonalism and a two-time Archibald Prize winner (1939 and 1940).
She typically painted plein air (outdoors) and favored ordinary subjects—city streets, suburban houses, street lights, bridges, beaches, parked cars, sunsets, sunrises, and hazy mornings and afternoons. Her body of work provides insight into what everyday life was like in Melbourne at the time.
Her family was largely unsupportive of her artistic endeavors. See the below text by the Art Gallery of South Australia.
“During her lifetime Clarice Beckett was denied the use of a dedicated painting studio. She had asked for a studio to be made available for her in the family’s newly designed home at Beaumaris. Her request was ignored and, when the family moved in 1919, her father declared that ‘the kitchen table would do’.
Her kitchen studio was also the room in which she painted her still lifes. It was also where she assembled her paintings – side by side along the skirting boards – to assess them before installing her exhibitions. She staged successive solo exhibitions at the Athenaeum Gallery in Melbourne between 1923 and 1933. The still lifes she exhibited were among her most admired works.” Art Gallery of South Australia
(Sidenote: Beckett only painted a handful of still lifes (that we know of) and she painted them with tighter brushwork and a more classical style. This may have appealed to the conservative critics of the time, but I think her best works are her plein air landscapes and seascapes. They are more fresh and lively and honest.)
Despite the lack of support, she was prolific with a brush and painted around 2,000 works. Sadly, most have since been lost or destroyed. Her father, of all people, destroyed many of her paintings as he deemed them ‘unfinished’ and too abstract.
Her life was cut short in 1935. She was caught in a storm whilst painting plein air and developed pneumonia. Her name and work faded into obscurity for many years. Interest was reignited when curator and historian Rosalind Hollinrake started championing her work after discovering many of her paintings stored away in a farmer’s barn.
Today, she’s appreciated in a much kinder and brighter light. Various galleries and museums have showcased her work, including the Art Gallery of South Australia and the National Gallery of Australia. In 2021, the Art Gallery of South Australia held a major retrospective of her work titled The Present Moment. There’s also an annual Clarice Beckett Art Award presented by the City of Kingston in Victoria, Australia. And here I am, writing about her now!
Focus on Mood and Atmosphere
This focus on mood and atmosphere is most effective when paired with subjects of that same nature, such as hazy mornings and afternoons, sunrises, and sunsets. Below are a few examples. This is Beckett’s work at its best, in my opinion.
I’m not sure if her style works as well for more cheery and bright subjects. Take her painting, Spring Morning, for example. Her wispy brushwork and soft edges seem to play against the subject’s nature. My eyes are left itching for a few hard edges and bursts of clarity. But that’s just me!
Tip: When exploring famous artists like this, take them down from the pedestal and critique them as a peer. Look for areas that you might improve on. This isn’t about being negative or overly critical; rather, it’s about judging their work objectively and without all the romanticism.
Simplified Detail and Relaxed, Impressionistic Brushwork
Beckett was vague in her description of subjects, doing just enough for us to know what the painting is about and not a single stroke more. She let simple color shapes do most of the work and ignored the frills. At best, painting in this way can produce honest and clear glimpses of how the artist sees the world. At worst, it can appear bland and unfinished. The key is being spot-on with the fundamentals and injecting a bit of personality and flare, which Beckett did.
One of the benefits of simplifying the subject like this is that it reduces the overall noise and focuses attention on the important details. When I look at Beckett’s work, my eyes aren’t overrun with information and detail and there’s no confusion as to where she wants me to look.
The simplified detail works particularly well for her serine landscapes, like View Across the Yarra. Here there’s complete alignment between the subject’s nature, Beckett’s brushwork and style, and the simplified detail.
Beckett used relaxed, impressionistic brushwork. This may have been partly due to stylistic preference and partly due to the demands of plein air paintings. When painting plein air, the environment, the subject, and the colors change rapidly in front of you. You must paint fast to capture it.
It seems she typically painted alla prima (wet on wet) and with a thin layer of paint, sometimes just enough to cover the surface. You can see what I mean in Evening Scene, shown below. The thin layer of paint allows part of the surface below to show through and it gives the paint a slightly transparent, ethereal finish, even when opaque colors are involved.
Limited Palette and Soft, Pastel Colors
Beckett was restrained in her use of color, using a limited palette and relying mostly on grays and soft pastel colors. These paintings won’t command attention in a gallery room, but they do have a quiet beauty about them.
Even her paintings of the sun at sunrise or sunset feature restrained oranges and yellows. Using color in this way promotes a sense of harmony and unity throughout the painting, as the colors share a common theme in value and/or saturation. Daniel Garber’s work also comes to mind. He often painted bright landscapes with muted and high-key (light) colors.
Another theme you’ll see in Beckett’s work is a few bursts of strong or vivid color amongst a sea of grays or weak colors. See Beach Scene below. This is a tried and true approach. The vivid and muted colors complement each other, with the vivid colors drawing attention and acting as exclamation points and the muted colors adding context and providing a stage for the vivid colors to shine.
Passing Trams is another example. This is also a great demonstration of color relativity. Look how those strokes of orange—which are weak and tinted, far from pure cadmium orange—stand out amongst the grays. If you ever want to draw attention to a particular color, surround it with colors that won’t compete for attention.
Gallery of Her Work
Here are some more of Beckett’s paintings that I’m particularly fond of:
Helpful Links and Resources
Here are some helpful links and resources to learn more about her life and work:
S.H. Ervin Gallery: Press release about the 1999 exhibition of her work titled Politically Incorrect.
Art Gallery of South Australia: Detailed article on Beckett’s life and work.
Mutual Art: Extensive showcase of her work.
Wikipedia: More details about her life and work.
Wikipedia: Details about her most significant teacher, Max Meldrum.
Australian Dictionary of Biography: Short biography by Rosalind Hollinrake.
National Gallery of Victoria (Video): Clarice Beckett, A Leading Female Artist.
Paul Ingbretson (Video): Student of Max Meldrum discussing Beckett’s work.
Thanks for Reading!
I appreciate you taking the time to read this post. Feel free to share with friends. Let me know your thoughts in the comments.
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