A joyful disguise
Hilda Rix Nicholas, The masquerader, circa 1913
Ballarat-born artist Hilda Rix Nicholas (1884–1961) is renowned for her bold landscape, portrait and still-life paintings. Her Post-Impressionist style made a significant contribution to the development of Australian art during the first half of the 20th century.
A student of Frederick McCubbin at the National Gallery Art School between 1902 and 1905, Hilda Rix was an early member of the Melbourne Society of Woman Painters and Sculptors. In 1907, after her father died, she travelled with her mother and sister to France, where she was exposed to the avant-garde art scene including the work of the Post Impressionists and Fauves.
She attended many ateliers (workshops) in Paris and in the years leading up to the First World War she spent three summers at Étaples, an artist colony in the north of France. She also paid two visits to Morocco during this time and the influence of her visits there is evident in the light and colour of the works produced around this period, which are among the earliest Post-Impressionist works by an Australian artist.
When First World War broke out in 1914, she was evacuated from France to England along with her mother and sister. Over the next four years she suffered a series of personal tragedies with the death of both her mother and her sister and of her husband, George Matson Nicholas, who was killed in action shortly after they were married in 1916.
After returning to Australia in 1918, Rix Nicholas quickly made an impact on the Australian art scene. An exhibition in Sydney of her works from France and Morocco were praised by some for the Post-Impressionist style and criticised by others for being too ‘modern’ and ‘pseudo-masculine’.
Over the next eight years she travelled around New South Wales with a friend to ‘paint things typical of my country’. This resulted in a series of light-infused patriotic landscapes in which she aimed to depict Australia’s evolving national identity, presenting Australia as a Post-War Arcadia.
She exhibited her idealistic Australian landscapes in Europe to critical acclaim and was made an associate of the French Société Nationale de Beaux Arts before she returned to Australia once more in 1926.
Rix Nicholas’ work became unfashionable in the 1950s and 60s but since the 1970s, both the brilliance of her work and her remarkable achievements in paving the way for Australian female painters have been rightfully acknowledged. In 1977, Ron Radford, the Director of the Art Gallery of Ballart, who considered Rix Nicholas a major Australian artist, acquired five of her works for the collection, including The masquerader 1913.
Is this young woman ready for a costume party or is she performing in a play? She seems to be in disguise, dressed in blue and draped in a boldly patterned shawl. The bold patterns and vibrant colours in The masquerader 1913 create a sense of festivity, and the loose and animated application of the paint adds to the sense of occasion. The mask hiding her identity also highlights the joy in the sitter’s expression, acting as a focal point for the composition. The painting’s vibrancy comes not only from the colour and pattern – the sitter’s confident pose and expression adds to the scene’s frivolity.
The sitter for the painting was the artist’s sister Elsie, who sadly died not long after the completion of the painting. It was painted after Rix Nicholas’ first trip to Morocco and the influence of this trip can be seen in her use of pattern and colour. The colours and patterns of North Africa evident in the sitter’s shawl are complemented by her blue dress and the bright orange and yellow nasturtium flowers she is holding.
Although the style of The masquerader 1913 is neither purely Post-Impressionist or Fauvist, Rix Nicholas’ painterly brush strokes and confident use of colour reference the influence of her contemporaries and her studies in France.
Other works by Hilda Rix Nicholas in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ballarat
Portrait of Mrs Raphael
Gift of Rix Wright, 1977
Elphin children, Brittany
coloured pencils on paper
Gift of Rix Wright, 1977
The frugal meal
oil on canvas
Gift of Ballarat Zonta, 1979
Arab market place
oil on board
Frame conserved with funds donated by Professor Ruth Rentschler, 2013