1. Did women do well in the arts because of a generalised increase in support for feminisim. Or did the women artists pre-date and perhaps encourage the growth of feminisim?
2. Did female artists depict women differently from men? Were their women characters stronger, more intelligent, less clingy, more active?
3. Did any male artists start to depict women differently?
4. Art offered the possibility to women of public self-expression. But did women artists specifically support the organised Women’s Movement? And vice versa?
Here is something of an answer, at least for the first and fourth questions. After years of research, the Castlemaine Gallery’s curator has brought together a stunning collection of works by artist Dora Meeson from public and private collections all over Australia. Showcasing Meeson’s impressive ability to capture the differing moods of her favourite subject, the Thames, the Shimmering Light: Dora Meeson and the Thames exhibition celebrates the pioneering spirit of this once much admired London-based Australian. We may not instantly recognise her name now, but by 1919 Meeson was famous - she was elected as a member of the Royal Institute of Oil Painters in London!
Meeson, London Bridge, 1912
56 x 90 cm
Photo credit: Leonard Joel, Melbourne
Dora Meeson (1869–1955) was a student at Melbourne's National Gallery School and then at London's Slade School. Australian artist George Coates (1869-1930), who had once conducted drawing classes in his Swanston St studio in Melbourne, met her at the Académie Julian in Paris; they were engaged in 1900. Why did they not marry until June 1903, in London? It seemed that both husband and wife agreed not to have children and to devote themselves instead to their art full time.
Meeson and Coates had adored Impressionist art in France, especially Caillebotte, Renoir, Sisley, Fantin-Latour, Monet. Even in London, they were still reminding each other about how the Impressionists' fragmented brushstrokes captured the nature of air and water changing with the light.
After a few years of marriage, the young couple rented Augustus John's studio in Bohemian Chelsea where they became close friends with a large number of Australian expatriate artists. As an extra source of income, Coates produced black-and-white illustrations for HS Williams' encyclopaedic and historic texts.
How appropriate that Meeson was an active member of the British Artists' Suffrage League. She designed and painted the banner which was first used in a suffragette parade in 1908 and subsequently at later demonstrations in London. The banner depicts a woman personifying Australia imploring another representing Britain to Trust the women, Mother, as I have done. The banner was presented to the women of Australia as a Bicentenary gift in 1988 and is on now on permanent display in Parliament House, Canberra. A representation of her banner was later used on the design of the Australian 2003 dollar coin, celebrating the centenary of women's suffrage across Australia.
Meeson, London Bridge Looking South, c1922-24
76 x 64 cm
Photo credit: Deutscher~Menzies Sydney
Neither Meeson nor Coates responded to developments in art after impressionism and their work remained entrenched within the limits of carefully crafted, realistic art. There does not seem to be any acknowledgement in their paintings of Fauvism, Cubism or any of the other late-Edwardian or post-Edwardian art movements booming across Europe.
Yet Meeson did not concentrate on Edwardian family picnics and ladies socialising in white tea-dresses. She remained best known for her busy images of the River Thames, probably reflecting her socialist and social consciousness. In 1911 she spent the summer near the Surrey Commercial Docks, painting en plein air - in changing weather, lighting and events. Her works may have been impresssionistic, but the labour she depicted was gritty and masculine. The river was crowded with shipping, warehouses, traders and labourers.
A number of her Thames paintings were acquired after WW2 by the Port of London Authority.
Sarg. Coates enlisted in the Territorial Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915 and served as an orderly at the 3rd London General Hospital. While not an official war artist, he did many portrait commissions for the Australian War Memorial. Coates also painted portraits of Canadian war heroes.
The Castlemaine exhibition closes shortly (in Nov 2013).
Meeson, Thames at Chelsea Reach, 1913
Photo credit: Art Gallery of NSW
Readers might like to locate an article, written by Myra Scott, called How Australia led the way: Dora Meeson Coates and British Suffrage. It was published by the Commonwealth Office Status of Women, Canberra in 2003. For Thames River images, read the Shimmering Light: Dora Meeson and the Thames catalogue, published by the Castlemaine Art Gallery in 2013.