The courage of her convictions, Rebecca Rice

Grace Joel: An Impressionist Portrait
Joel L Schiff
Otago University Press, $45.00,
ISBN 9781877578861

Miss Grace Joel displays the courage of her convictions. The work is obviously not a pot-boiler; obviously not the product of a lady “who does a little painting now and again”. The artist is working on right lines leading to success. Evening Post, 12 October 1907.

This assessment of Grace Joel’s works was made in response to the paintings she’d left behind for exhibition at Wellington’s annual Academy exhibition, following her permanent departure for England in March 1907. From then until her death in 1924, Joel was a regular exhibitor in Paris and London, making appearances at both the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Société des Artistes Français in Paris. She was well connected in artistic circles as well as in the Australasian expatriate community. She was a consistent, rather than progressive painter, who specialised in genre painting and portraits and is particularly remembered for her touching studies of mothers and children. She was, arguably, “working on right lines leading to success”, but not those that would offer her a permanent place in the annals of New Zealand’s nationalist art history.

Instead, Grace Joel has, to date, been a somewhat elusive figure, in a way that I have always found rather enigmatic. Indeed, I think I have always admired her sense of self-sufficiency, that she seemed neither to seek, nor need the approval of a New Zealand audience, as did Frances Hodgkins, for instance. Nonetheless, Joel has haunted texts from Colin McCahon’s seminal survey of six expatriates in 1962 through to Anne Kirker’s 1993 survey of New Zealand Women Artists. In between, work done by Peter Entwistle and Roger Collins on the richness of Dunedin’s cultural scene in the late 19th century opened up scope for a study of Joel. A close look at this artist was inevitable, and this is offered by Joel Schiff in Grace Joel: An Impressionist Portrait. 

As Schiff points out, serious assessment of Joel’s career has been hampered by a lack of primary sources. The subtitle of his book, “an impressionist portrait”, allows for a certain blurring around the edges, a suggestion of form rather than an absolute description, and this is definitely true of Schiff’s approach. This is necessary when dealing with a subject as evasive as Joel, who leaves no bank of letters either to families, as did Frances Hodgkins, or lovers, as did Katherine Mansfield. But what has enabled Schiff to reconstruct the bones of a life is the richness of online newspaper archives. This is where toings and froings, exhibitions and appearances were documented throughout Joel’s life.

Schiff’s explorations have filled the gaps in between these cursory accounts, resulting in full descriptions of the nature of Joel’s life abroad. He does particularly well at invoking the culture of the Académie Julian, where Joel studied from 1899 to 1901, culminating in her painting Son enfant being selected for the Salon. As she herself later wrote, the selection processes for such exhibitions were anything but impartial, and inclusion did not guarantee your picture would be well hung:

Where thousands of pictures are looked at in one day by a jury, however expert, it is impossible that they can be judged on their merits: so that where the picture or name is not known it is mere chance what is accepted or hung.

Joel voiced this opinion in response to the difficulty the Australian artist Arthur Streeton was having getting works accepted for exhibitions, as he had no teachers in Paris or London who might vouch for him. Joel’s familiarity with Streeton, whose portrait she had painted, points to another area of her life that Schiff offers interesting insights into: her associations with her Australian peers. Of particular interest is his revelation that she and leading Australian impressionist E Phillips Fox were second cousins. In light of this and Joel’s Australian education, it seems surprising that she did not register as a candidate for inclusion in the National Gallery of Victoria’s exhibition or catalogue Australian Impressionists in France of 2013.

But this is perhaps not so unexpected, given that Joel is little represented in major metropolitan institutions. Aside from two portraits, that of Streeton and another of Girolamo Nerli, both in the collections of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Joel is otherwise unrepresented in Australia, and until recently there have only been a handful of important paintings held in major galleries in New Zealand. Instead, many of the gems discussed in this book are from private collections.

Access to these collections has enabled Schiff, mathematician turned artist-biographer, to steadily chip away at Joel’s aloofness over the last few years. Schiff’s approach to his subject is personal and largely anecdotal. His tone verges on that of a favourite uncle who is so engrossed in his story that he becomes sidetracked by tangential details or makes spurious conjectures and is, occasionally, embarrassing. For example, the iconic portrait photograph of Frances Hodgkins in her studio, circa 1905, is considered to be “intended to beguile her fiancé”. At times, too, the opportunity to reveal Joel’s voice is glossed over. Rather than citing diary excerpts from Annie Beauchamp’s voyage to England or a transcript of Entwistle’s interview with a 100-year-old subject of one of Joel’s paintings, texts more directly related to Joel, such as her 1909 interview with Georgia Pearce for The Woman Worker or her own account of “Australasian artists in London: A reminiscence”, could have been usefully reprinted as appendices.

The text exudes the feeling of a passionate amateur who’s become enamoured with the world he finds himself enmeshed in, while he is, at the same time, trying to unravel it. For Joel is not easy on her biographer. Her works were not always dated, or titled, so attempts to match catalogue records to extant paintings prove elusive and occasionally frustrating, meaning Schiff gets tangled in his own web at times. The ability to follow arguments is often hampered due to the lack of basic conventional elements in an illustrated text, such as an image list. And although Schiff has produced an appendix of exhibitions, there is no attempt at a catalogue of works which would have allowed for a clear assessment of Joel’s artistic development.

While Schiff does much good work in terms of his subject, he lets her down on one crucial front. Joel is nothing if not a painter, and the reproductions do not do justice to her pictures. Occasionally, the poor quality of the images is acknowledged: the caption to Son enfant (Her child), 1901, reads “The folds in the dark-brown cloth do not appear in the colour photograph because of reproduction issues”, but otherwise appalling, out-of-focus and anaemic images are printed without apology. Where the works are well imaged, such as the painting Schiff suggests could be a candidate for Mdlle. la Comtesse de M, Joel’s absolute skill is apparent – her delicate handling of colour and brush creates a vision in pink. This is what is required of a book about an artist – the ability properly to appreciate their art and to see them putting into practice “the courage of their convictions”.

Schiff’s “impressionist portrait” offers a richer understanding of the life and times in which Joel lived and painted. But it would have benefited from a touch of the academic, and from a tighter editorial hand. While it lays solid foundations for an art historical analysis of Joel’s work, the state of New Zealand art publishing means that this may well be the text on Joel that adorns bookshelves for the next several decades. It is “not a pot-boiler”, but were it vying for inclusion in the Paris Salon or the Royal Academy in London, I would say this portrait would be accepted, but hung a little “skied”, not quite on the line.

Rebecca Rice is an art historian and curator who specialises in historical New Zealand art.

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