In 1887, at 22, he moved to Paris to learn at the Academie Julian and the Fine Arts School with the masters, and was lucky enough to study with the French master artist Jean Leon Gerome. So who were Fox’s role models? James Whistler and John Singer Sargent had also been trained in Paris and were also clearly influenced by impressionism, especially Claude Monet. Consider one of Whistler's earliest portraits, Symphony in White 1862. And consider a Sargent portrait of The Daughters of Edward Darly Boit, Americans living in Paris 1882. Phillips Fox would have loved these works to have been his own.
Whistler, Symphony in White (Left)
(Right) Sargent, Daughters of E.D.Boit
Fox returned to Australia in 1892 and although he was still young, an exhibition of his art was well received. Luckily for Australian art, Fox founded the Melbourne Art School in Bourke St in 1892 with fellow artist, Tudor St George Tucker (d1906).
During 1894 they held a summer school at Charterisville, an old mansion in Heidelberg, modelling their teaching on French studio and plein-air painting practices. This property had belonged to another Australian painter who had studied in Paris, Walter Withers. But whereas Charterisville had been used previously for weekend painting camps by the men, Fox opened a permanent summer art school for women.
Of all the artists painting in Melbourne at the turn of the century, Phillips Fox’s work came closest to the style and technique of French Impressionism. And even more, the subject matter he selected. A sensitive and subtle painter, he was best known for large images of colour, sunlight, pretty girls and the good life. He painted Orientalist scenes and landscapes as well, but I am more interested in his pretty girls in this posting.
He had plenty of opportunity to depict the lovely young women he taught. Phillips Fox and his student Asquith Baker respected each other, so much that he dedicated a large painting called Art Students 1895 to her. Not only did he enjoy women’s company; women enjoyed his. Violet Teague’s letters included comments about Fox's love for art and for teaching, and the students’ enjoyment in learning from Fox. I wonder why he didn’t marry until 1905, when he was already 40.
In 1902 Fox decided to return to Paris where some of his most refined works were painted. Here he used another student, Ursula Foster, as the model for A Love Story 1903, one of the artist's earliest works to include elegantly dressed women enjoying leisure time, a theme he returned to often. The long white Edwardian dress, lounging diagonally across the canvas, exactly captured the light and atmosphere of a summer's day.
Fox married the artist Ethel Carrick in London in 1905. They then lived in Paris until 1913, travelling widely in Europe and northern Africa. I must return to Ethel Carrick Fox's splendid art in a later blog article.
The Bathing Hour
In The Bathing Hour 1909, Fox depicted the tender relationship between a mother and her child, long a favourite theme of Impressionists. Like Mary Cassatt (The Bath 1891; Mother and Child c1905), Phillip Fox apparently never tired of the very tender mother-child bond. However there was a difference. Cassatt’s maternal images were not sentimental; her subjects were normal people in domestic settings, busy with the daily tasks. Phillip Fox’s mother, observed directly from life, was also adoring her toddler.
The Arbour c1910 was another languid view of a middle class family at leisure, this time painted while he was in France. Contemporary critics praised this image for its fine composition and admired Fox's ability “to create poetry, vagueness, airiness and space" in his works. Like the French Impressionists, Fox had no major social or political theme that he wanted to analyse in The Arbour. The dappled light, fine clothes and pleasant family relationships were enough. Remember Monet’s ladies in long white dresses called Women in the Garden 1867, similar in feel to The Arbour.
Another work to note was The Lesson c1912, a Phillips Fox image that could have come straight out of the studio of Cassatt or Morisot. This time an interior scene, the long soft dresses of the women were softened still further by the dappled summer light, streaming through the window. The strongest colours inside the room were creams, whites and subtle pinks. Like The Bathing Hour, this image focussed on close family relationships.
So of all the artists painting in Melbourne at the turn of the century, the work of Phillips Fox came closest to the style, subject matter and technique of French Impressionism. His paintings were not identifiably Australian; they were more concerned with women and family life than they were with gum trees, gold miners and drovers. He was a very popular teacher, focussing on light, colour and spontaneous painting, not just on drawing. But 100 years later I can find few blogs discussing his contribution to Australian art (except artwall and ImHaute in English and Thé au Jasmin: octobre 2008 in French).