Grace Cossington Smith and Lucie Cousturier - Post Impressionist Bonds
Andrea Hope, 2018 (updated 2023)
I'd like to introduce two artists, one from Paris and one from Sydney, whose work I consider to show remarkable Post Impressionist similarity. The artists are Lucie Cousturier (1876 - 1925) and Grace Cossington Smith (1892 - 1984).
Grace Cossington Smith, Study of a Head, Self Portrait, 1916
Lucie cousturier, Self Portrait, c1905-10
In researching French artist and writer, Lucie Cousturier¹, for my art history e-course, I came across a painting, Femme Faisant Du Crochet, that immediately reminded me of an iconic Australian painting, The Sock Knitter, painted in 1915 by Grace Cossington Smith.
Grace Cossington Smith, The Sock Knitter, 1915
Lucie Cousturier, Femme Faisant Du Crochet (Woman Crocheting), c1908
The Sock Knitter is considered by many to be the first Australian truly Modernist (Post Impressionist) painting because of the bold forms and use of colour. It's perhaps all the more remarkable because although she has been drawing for some years, when Cossington Smith painted this at the age of 23, she had only been painting for a year. The painting is of her sister, Madge, and shows her knitting socks for the war effort for the first World War.
My immediate question was; Could Grace Cossington Smith have seen the painting by Lucie Cousturier and been influenced by it?
Femme Faisant Du Crochet was painted in about 1908 by Lucie Cousturier when she around 34, and is a painting of Miss G Bosq. In 1909 it was exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants. It's now held at the Musée d'Orsay in Paris.
Lucie (Brû) Cousturier was born in Paris and became interested in painting at the age of fourteen, and studied under Neo Impressionists Paul Signac (around 1897) and Henri-Edmond Cross. She was also a close friend of the pointillist (also known as Divisionalism) Georges Seurat, and was the first owner of his painting, Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte. In 1900, together with Félix Fénéon, she organized the first retrospective devoted to Georges Seurat.
Many of her earlier works are painted the pointillist similar style, however, she found it too restrictive. She retained the juxtaposition of pure colors, but used a brush that produced square shapes instead, rather than using usual brushstrokes which produced smaller dots.
Lucie Cousturier, photo, seated in front of Sunday afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte
It's also obvious from looking at her range of paintings that she was also influenced by Cezanne.
Paul Cezanne, Mont Saint Victoire, 1885 - 87
Paul Cézanne, Dish of Apples, ca. 1875–77
Lucie Cousturier, Jardin, c1900
Lucie Cousturier, Nature Morte, 1900
Cousturier first exhibited at the Salon des Artistes Indépendants in 1901, and was to exhibit three to eight oil paintings at the Salon every year until 1920. Much appreciated by the Belgian artistic community (in particular by the painter Théo van Rysselberghe and the poet Emile Verhaeren), she exhibited at the Salon de la Libre Esthétique in Brussels in 1906. That same year, she also exhibited at the Berlin Secession, and at the end of 1906 gave her first solo exhibition in Paris. Her work was also exhibited at the Berheim-Juene Gallery in Paris.
By 1907 she had mastered her technique and use of colour. In her later paintings, particularly outdoors scenes, her style became increasingly fluid and free, with warm and lively colours.
As well as painting, Cousturier was an accomplished writer - writing biographies of other pointillist artists such as Georges Seurat, Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross, as well as books about Senegalese soldiers in France and her travel to Africa.
In October 1923, 164 of her drawings and watercolours from her African journey were included in an exhibition at the Galerie de Bruxelles, together with works by Paul Signac.
The painting which caught my eye, Femme Faisant Du Crochet, was painted around 1908.
You can see a strong similarity in style between this painting and Cossington Smith's The Sock Knitter. Both young women are in silent contemplation as they go about their craft - both dominate the picture plane. Both paintings are Post Impressionist - Cousturier's being more in style of Paul Signac and Henri-Edmond Cross with her use of Divisionist brush strokes and Cossington Smith's being more in the style of van Gogh, with her use of broader choppy brushstrokes to delineate form. (You can see how she has used a similar technique in her self portrait painted a year later.)
What I do appreciate about the two paintings is that they both reflect a moment in time - Cousturier's being painted in France in warmer months prior to the first world war, and Cossingston Smith's being painted in colder months in Australia, not long after the war commenced. Even the colours used in the paintings reflect the mood and relative temperatures.
Both artists have also worked in patterns, and geometry plays a strong part in their composition.
Was there any connection between the two artists?
Grace Cossington Smith
Grace Cossington Smith
Born in Sydney in 1892, Cossington Smith was one of Australia's first Modernist painters.
She exhibited at annual exhibitions of the Royal Art Society of New South Wales from 1915, the Society of Artists from 1919 and the Contemporary Group from 1927. Her first solo exhibition was in 1928 at the Grosvenor Galleries, then, from 1932 to 1971, every three or four years at the Macquarie Galleries.
By the 1940s art museums throughout Australia began collecting her work and by the 1960s her work had become widely known. Cossington Smith was awarded and O.B.E in 1973².
In 1915, still at an early stage in her career, Cossington Smith was seeking to learn as much as she could from European artists. Her early training had been at Abbotsleigh School in Sydney in 1909, where she'd had art classes from Albert Collins and Alfred Coffey. In the following year she began to study drawing with Antonio Dattilo-Rubbo, and continued lessons with him two days a week after the family moved to Bowral.
She travelled to England where she lived from 1912 to 1914, where she had lessons at the Winchester School of Art, and she also travelled to Germany. She attended a some outdoor sketching classes at Speck, near Stettin, Germany, but the most lasting art influence was her memory of paintings by Watteau in Berlin.
Although there isn't a record of the exhibitions she attended overseas she did state that she was a little disappointed by the Impressionist works she had seen whilst overseas3, and claimed not to have studied modern art during her trip.
So, given that she hadn't travelled to Paris before her painting, the Sock Knitter, was completed, is there any way that Cossington Smith would have seen a reproduction of Cousturier's work?
On her return to Sydney, Cossington Smith had continued to study art under Dattilo-Rubbo. Rubbo had a great feeling for the colour of the Impressionists and Post Impressionists including van Gogh, Cézanne, Pissaro, Sisley, Gauguin, Vuillard, Seurat and Italian artist Giovanni Segantini4.
He placed reproductions of works by these artists in his studio, following a trip he took to Europe for several months in 1906 (before the work by Cousturier was exhibited), and these reproductions certainly did influence his students.
Another of these students, Norah Simpson, also travelled to England in 1912-13, and she also brought back a suitcase of books, reproductions and photographs of the Post Impressionists from both England and Europe, which she showed with great enthusiasm to Rubbo's students.
She and Cossington Smith spoke a great deal about what she had seen whilst she was overseas, and it was only a year later that Cossington Smith began work on The Sock Knitter.
Norah Simpson, Self Portrait, 1911
Is it possible that Norah Simpson brought back a reproduction of the work by Lucie Cousturier? Was the painting included in any of the catalogues for the exhibitions in which her work was shown - for example at the Salon of the Society of Independent Artists, in Paris in 1909, which Simpson may have acquired whilst overseas? Could she have seen the work and taken a photograph of it?
Dattilo-Rubbo also had a practice of inviting artists to talk to his students during their lunch break, so it may have been that a guest speaker introduced the students to the work of Cousturier. Possibilities include Evelyn Campbell (a close friend if Rubbo who studied in Paris in 1911 and later became the first Australian female artist to depict the blasted battlefields, towns and churches of the western front).
Whether or not Cossington Smith was influenced by Lucie Cousturier, or other artists in her circle, or the similarities are just co-incidental as Cossington Smith sought to develop her own modern style, remains a is a tantalizing mystery, which is a great part of my fascination with art history.
1)Roger Little, Lucie Cousturier, les tirailleurs sénégalais et la question colonial, Paris, L'Harmattan, 2009. ISBN 9782296073487
2) Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 11 , 1988 Biography - Grace Cossington Smith - (anu.edu.au)
3)Deborah Hart (ed), Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, 2005, p10
4)Deborah Hart (ed), Grace Cossington Smith, National Gallery of Australia, 2005, p11