10 February 2024

Hilda Rix Nicholas: France, WW1, Aus art

Hilda Rix  (1884-1961) was born in rural Victoria. Her mother was artistic so Hilda was allowed to study at the National Gallery School Melbourne from 1902-5 under Frederick McCubbin, Australia’s greatest artist then. In 1907 she left Australia for Europe with her mother and sister, studying at the New Art School in London, followed by studies at three of the best known art académies in Paris.

Hilda Rix Nicholas
La Robe chinoise c1913,  oil, 141 x 83 cm, 
Art Gallery of WA

Every summer between 1910-1914 Rix established herself at the artist’s colony in Etaples in northern France, enjoying painting the local people in their traditional dress. The work entitled Dear Old Fairy Godmother was drawn there.

In 1912 and 1914, Rix visited Spain and Morocco, with long periods in Tangier. There the colour and light, very different from that in Northern France, reminded her of the Australian light. She championed the culture of cosmopolitan Morocco, carefully recording in a discreet way the public life of the market place, especially the role of women in it. Staying at Tangier's famous Hotel Villa de France at the same time as Henri Matisse, she depicted some of his sites and models.

Rix's drawings and paintings of both Picardy and Morocco added to her fame. A large painting was shown at the Salon des Artistes Francais 1911 and many works were included in exhibitions conducted by Societe des Peintres Orientalistes, Paris. In 1912 the French government bought her work Grand Marche Tangier, for the Luxembourg Gallery. Serious articles about Rix appeared in The Studio published in London, and Notre Gazette published in Paris.

La Robe chinoise c1913 depicted Hilda Rix’s sister, Elsie, in fancy dress. The blue and red costume of oriental design looked very lush, and by placing it in an ornamental frame, Rix was making her sister look exotic. Elsie and Hilda sent heaps of correspondence to friends and family - letters that have recently been published.

Hilda Rix Nicholas
Camouflage, 1914
crayons and charcoal on paper, 37 x 27 cm

Rix wrote to her sister talking of women doing brutal physical labour in Public Space i.e in Moroccan streets and markets. She said "I proceeded to work while a merry interested crowd grew behind me, I put into my foreground one of the many women who, like any of the other beasts of burden, had tramped fifteen miles bearing a heavy load on her back. She wore scant attire made of a series of towels, her face bound and veiled. Her legs were encased in primitive leather gaiters".

When WW1 started in 1914, Rix happily lived and worked in Paris. Then Rix, her mother and sister were all forced to evacuate to the safety of London. Several months later her sister died of typhoid. Her mother died in early 1916.

Later in 1916 in London Hilda Rix met and married an Australian, Major George Nicholas. Stratford Historical Society and Museum in Gippsland has a fantastic photo of the young couple in their wedding week, leaving Buckingham Palace. After a short honeymoon, Major Nicholas returned to the French Front where he was killed in action at Flers. It was a time of irrepairable tragedy.

Rix Nicholas maintained her husband's name throughout the remainder of her career, although she later remarried. She was devastated by the death of her sister and husband in 1916; she painted that devastation into the work Desolation. Catherine Speck wrote movingly about women artists and their visual responses to terrible wartime events .

A mother of France c1914 was purchased later by the Australian War Memorial Canberra. It was a portrait of her elderly neighbour in Étaples, whose son had been killed in an early WW1 battle. Nicholas painted the poor woman as silenced by her private grief. The Australian War Memorial noted that by identifying the woman only “as a mother of France”, Rix Nicholas presented her as a symbol of the suffering of all grieving mothers. This image countered the nonsense that mothers should take pride in their sons' sacrifice for their country.

At war's end Rix left England for Australia. Going first to Sydney, her art was widely shown there. Young artist  Grace Cossington Smith told people that Rix’s work was stunning. During the next 6 years Rix Nicholas continued to establish herself as one of Australia's finest painters, but not without raising some strife within the conservative and male dominated art establishment.

More used to Europe’s liberalism, Rix began to explore Australia's great outback landscapes eg The Shearers 1922. This was gutsy since landscape was the domain of male artists in this country. Women artists were expected to specialise in portraiture and still life. But she had fallen in love with her own country again and it was the start of her grand romance with the Australian bush and landscape.

Hilda Rix Nicholas
The Shearers 1922,  oil, 79 x 98 cm
sold at auction in 2005

In 1928 she married an Australian soldier, Edgar Wright. But unlike Major Nicholas, Wright had survived the war and offered a peaceful life as a grazier’s wife. Amazingly when she was over 40, they had a beloved son (Rix).

While artist Margaret Preston was supported by the art establishment; fortunate to have her work reproduced in Art in Australia, Nicholas thought her own work was being undermined. This was because: 1] her best-known work, A Man 1921, had been refused by the Australian War Memorial and 2] her entry for a War Memorial Mural in Melbourne's Public Library failed. But knowing how popular she had been, her fear of a gender-based rejection was telling.

Une Australienne, Portrait of Dorothy Richmond, 1926
oil, 103 x 81 cm.
National Gallery Australia

In 1924, Hilda was invited to exhibit her Australian art in both France and England, so she rather happily returned to Paris. The French government purchased one of her most important paintings, In Australia, and she exhibited at London's prestigious, Royal Academy. And in 1926, even more recognition arrived - she was elected an associate of the Societe Nationale des Beaux-Arts and died in 1961.

Hilda Rix Nicholas
The Summer house, 1931, 81 x 100cm, oil, 
Newcastle Region Art Gallery

See John Pigot's book Hilda Rix Nicholas: Her Life and Her Art, (Miegunyah 2000); Jeanette Hoorn's book Moroccan Idyll: Art and Orientalism (Miegunyah 2012) and Catherine Speck's article "Women Artists and the Representation of WW1" in The Journal of Australian Studies, March 1999.


Jo-Anne's Ramblings said...

Some damn good works of art here that I so liked

roentare said...

What an artist to draw with these exotic cultural appropriate clothing.

Student of History said...

Remember the Paris to Monaro show at the National Portrait Gallery? That was fun.

Andrew said...

Another female artist who I should have heard of but I haven't. Her paintings look terribly good to me, and The Shearers is excellent.

River said...

I like these paintings done by someone I never heard of before. Real people in real surroundings.

Hels said...


A few of Hilda's paintings are in each of Australia's capital cities eg Art Gallery of South Australia, Australian War Memorial, National Gallery of Australia and National Gallery of Victoria. But I would like to see a major exhibition altogether, like "Intrepid Women: Australian women artists in Paris 1890-1950", Sydney 2017-18.

Hels said...


an artist had to be talented in the first place, and then sensitive to cultural issues in the countries he/she travelled to. Think of Eugene Delacroix, Jean-Léon Gérôme, Théodore Chassériau, Alexandre-Gabriel Decamps and William Holman Hunt, all European artists who loved being in North Africa, the Holy Land, Turkey etc.

Women artists, like Henrietta Brown, must have been even braver and more committed.

Hels said...


Paris to Monaro (2013) provided a woman’s view of the lifestyle possible for middle class Australians in early C20th. Nicholas’ art was very different from that of her female contemporaries, modernists Margaret Preston, Grace Cossington Smith and Grace Crowley. Her paintings reflected a strongly feminine, personal response to the horror of WW1, as she turned from the mass destruction around her to focus on beauty.

The paintings I remember most included horses

Hels said...


She lived very happily overseas, but once WW1 ended, Rix left for home. It took her a few years to return to Australian themes in her art and to establish herself as one of Australia's most interesting painters, but at the time it must have felt like an impossibility for her.

Mind you, she became the first Australian female artist to hold a solo exhibition in Paris in 1925. That should have been a clue to the male experts back at home.

Hels said...


"real people in real surroundings" means horses, soldiers, markets, afternoon teas, mothers with their children, beach scenes etc. No royal weddings or coronations, no new cardinal being confirmed by the pope, no Last Supper or Crucifixion.

jabblog said...

I really like 'The Summer House' - the colours are glorious.

Hels said...


me too.

Another painting I truly love for the colours and attitude is "Une Australienne", 1925-6
J. B. Hawkins Antiques, Mosman Art Gallery


DUTA said...

If one is talented as Hilda Rix was, sooner or later, big recognition arrives, if not in one's own country, then in some other great places like Paris and London.
I like all her four paintings displayed in your post.

Katerinas Blog said...

Extremely interesting to know remarkable works and artists that we were unaware of before! Have a nice weekend!

My name is Erika. said...

I haven't heard of Rix, but she was a really talented artist. I enjoyed learning about her and seeing some of her art. It was interesting to see. Enjoy what's left to your weekend Hels.

Hels said...


I think it was very important, for her and for all Australian artists, that Rix Nicholas was happily creative while working abroad. And that her work was well received over there. She was only 35 when leaving Europe, so perhaps success was going come with older age.

I shall add another image to the post for us all to admire.

Hels said...


That happens to me all the time, and I wrote history lectures for nearly 30 years!
Thank goodness for blogs.

Hels said...


since I had no cultural talent of my own, be it music, art, literature etc, I was delighted to be an academic analysing other talented peoples' work. My knowledge base specialised in British, European, Russian and Australian culture, but I still find other peoples' analyses of Orientalist art fascinating.

hels said...

Welcome aboard :) Do you have a particular area of interest in the art world?

Parnassus said...

Hello Hels, Hilda Rix Nicholas is another fascinating artist you have introduced me to. While it is easy to like her exotic portraits and bobbed-hair women on the porch type of paintings, the entire scope of her painting reveals much more, from the very 'woman in a flowered dress', to wondering about the message in some of her later paintings. I would love to see some of these in person, as I am wondering about the finish on the pieces, but I will at least try to get one of the books.

Liam Ryan said...

How interesting. I did a google search and I might have to see her art in Australia.
And so much tragedy and loss in her life during the First World War.
I just saw the 'A mother of France' and it's very evocative.

hels said...


Nicholas was both talented enough, and fortunate to work for years in UK and France. She was very skilled even before coming home.

I easily found the Pigot book at Amazon.. you will enjoy it.

hels said...

WW1 was the war to end all wars, the most tragic 4 years of endless nightmare. I would have thought women artists might have not wanted to have anything to do with the massacres. But for many of the women, it was the first time they could contribute to the war effort.