Happy (belated) Birthday Grace Cossington Smith, born April 20, 1892! Smith was an Australian painter who brought Post-Impressionism to Australia.
Grace Smith was born on April 20, 1892 in Neutral Bay, Sydney, Australia. Her London-born father was a Crown Solicitor in New South Wales and her mother was the daughter of the rector and squire at Cossington Hall in Leicestershire, England. The family moved to New South Wales just before Grace was born. Grace was the second of five children; she had three sisters and one brother.
Grace attended school at the Abbotsleigh School for Girls in Wahroonga where she learned art from Albert Collins and Alfred Coffey. Her parents were supportive of her interest in art and provided opportunities for her to learn. Grace studied drawing with Italian artist Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, who offered classes for young ladies in Sydney, from 1910 to 1911. In 1912 she traveled to England with her older sister and they lived with an aunt in Winchester for two years. While in England she attended drawing classes at the Winchester School of Art and outdoor sketching classes in Germany.
After two years in England, Grace returned to Sydney, Australia. Her family had moved to a house in Turramurra which she lived the majority of the rest of her life. The family named their home “Cossington” in both Neutral Bay and Turramurra after her mother’s original home of Cossington Hall in Leicestershire, England. Grace later adopted Cossington as her middle name in 1920.
Grace Cossington Smith the Artist
After Grace Cossington Smith returned from England in 1914, she found that her father had built her own small art studio in the garden where she painted for many years. She also started taking art classes from Antonio Dattilo Rubbo again in Sydney. It’s here that she studied European modern art through color reproductions and began experimenting with oil paints.
As a student Smith painted “The Sock Knitter,” a painting of her sister knitting socks for soldiers at the start of World War I. A lot of the artwork at this time focused on the masculine heroism of the war, Smith’s painting showed how woman were also an important part of efforts at home. “The Sock Knitter” was exhibited at the Royal Art Society exhibition and was considered one of the first Post-Impressionist works exhibited in Australia.
Smith’s success at her first exhibition, led to other opportunities. She exhibited with the Society of Artists beginning in 1919. During this time period she would go out to sketch and record important events – like soldiers marching to war or the arrival of Prince of Wales – as well as everyday city life around Sydney.
In the 1920s Grace Cossington Smith started exhibiting in shows with the Contemporary Group, a group of modern artists in Australia. During this time period she created a series of paintings of the construction of the Sydney Harbour Bridge which she exhibited in her first solo exhibition in 1928 at Grosvenor Galleries in Sydney. Along with the exhibit, an article with illustrations and discussion of her work was published in Art in Australia magazine.
Following the death of her parents in the 1930s, she became the head of the household at Cossington and had a large well-lit art studio added to the home next to her bedroom. She started a long-lasting relationship with Macquarie Galleries in Sydney starting in 1932, having solo exhibitions regularly for the next four decades. Smith’s paintings during the 1930s celebrated modern life in the developing city of Sydney. She later became focused on painting landscapes through the 1940s.
Between 1948 and 1951 Grace Cossington Smith spent time in Europe and became inspired by English architecture. She sketched and took many pictures of the interior scenes of the cathedrals and buildings there. Once back home, she began to increasingly paint interior scenes. Her early interiors were in muted tones, but as the 1960s began Smith started using vibrant yellows in her paintings.
Style & Themes
Grace Cossington Smith was part of the Post-Impressionist movement. Her work broke away from Australian Impressionism to show her own individual technique.
Smith’s main interest was color. “My chief interest I think has always been colour, but not flat crude colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine, light must be in it.” (Grace Cossington Smith) Smith used bright colors in her works and very rarely added dark shadows. She used expressive square brush stokes and left her colors unblended, layering the colors. The paintings she completed in later life were dominated by the color yellow.
The themes she painted include Sydney landscapes, still lifes, and interior views of her home. “All form – landscape, interiors, still life, flowers, animals, people – has an inarticulate grace and beauty; painting to me is expressing this form in colour – colour vibrant with light – but containing this other, silent quality which is unconscious, and belongs to all things created.” (Grace Cossington Smith) Smith’s early works prior to the 1930s depicted city life and public life, such as ballet and musical performances as well as moments capturing life during World War I and II. Her later life works focused on still lifes and private interior scenes of her personal home.
Death & Legacy
It wasn’t until later in life that Grace Cossington Smith began to gain recognition for her work. In 1973 at the age of 81, a major retrospective of her work organized by the Art Gallery of New South Wales toured across Australia. She was also made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (Australia was still a part of UK rule) in 1973 and an Officer of the Order of Australia in 1983, which were high honors acknowledging her contributions to the arts.
Grace Cossington Smith passed away on December, 20, 1984 in a nursing home in Roseville, New South Wales and the age of 92. The impact that she had on modern art in Australia is immense. She helped lead the movement of Post-Impressionism from Europe to Australia and was a talented colorist who brought vibrancy and light to her everyday surroundings.
Her works can be found in major galleries throughout Australia. The Grace Cossington Smith Gallery was established at the Abbotsleigh School for Girls in Wahroonga that she attended as a child (it appears to be named in her honor verses holding a large collection of her work). The Cossington house in Turramurra where she spent most of her adult life was added to the New South Wales State Heritage Register in 2006.
Resources & Further Learning
If you enjoyed learning more about this artist, I encourage you to check out more of her paintings and research more in-depth articles about her life and work.
- https://www.youtube.com/watch?v=cvXav3-V5U8&t=24s (video)
- https://www.portrait.gov.au/words/grace-cossington-smith (interview clip)
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About the Artist
Laura Jaen Smith is an artist who lives and works out of Horseheads, New York. Her inspiration comes from observing the beauty she sees around her. After a decade living out west, she returned back to New York State and started seeing the same old places with new eyes. She is most interested in capturing small moments in nature that might otherwise be overlooked.
Visit her shop or ask about available works.