Menzies Art Brands



The heady artistic atmosphere of fin de sicle Paris captivated the young Rupert Bunny, when he moved there in 1886 as a twenty-four-year-old art student. By the late 1880s Bunnys sociable nature was well known and earned him a place in artistic circles that included some of the creative giants of the era, like Claude Debussy (1862-1918), Felix Mendelssohn (1809-1847) and Sarah Bernhardt (1844-1923).1 In this rich cultural milieu, Bunny established himself as an artist and was to remain in Paris for twenty-seven years. As he states, Nobody can have any idea unless they have lived in Paris and in Paris art circles of the intense vitality of the art there. Out here [in Australia] art is not the living, breathing thing that it is in Paris Here art is an entity; theres an atmosphere.2 Inspired by the profound creativity that surrounded him, Bunny was able to develop a visual language that could express his particular sensibilities.

The present work dates from about 1913 and sees Bunny use one of his favourite settings for figurative compositions, the balcony. He had painted numerous daytime and nocturnal balcony scenes in the first decade of the twentieth century, and between the years of 1907 and 1910 he created a series of twenty-one nocturnal figure paintings of women posed on balconies. In these works, Bunnys figures are usually depicted at ease, dressed in luxurious garments as they listen to distant music.3 For example in Summer Night (A Nocturne of Chopin) c1910 (held in the National Gallery of Australia), three women are posed on a balcony against a nocturnal background of velvety black. Two are seated, while another looks out wistfully towards the night sky, ostensibly listening to the dulcet tones of Chopin.

In the 2009 retrospective of Rupert Bunnys work at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, curator Deborah Edwards identified four major series or bodies of work within the artists oeuvre. These include his Salon paintings of biblical and mythological subjects; a series of landscapes; a radical group of Fauve inspired mythological paintings; and images of Parisian women at leisure, that she calls the feminine Arcady.4 Works such as On the Landing, and Summer Night (A Nocturne of Chopin) clearly belong to this final group, though are representative of different impulses within it.

In this broad category, Bunnys female figures are almost always depicted as passive, languorous and introspective. In works such as Summer Night (A Nocturne of Chopin) and others from this period, this reflective quality suggests the Symbolist preoccupation with the unconscious mind and imagination that which dwells beneath the surface. For example the inferred presence of music, and the single rose held by the seated figure in Summer Night (A Nocturne of Chopin) prompts one to wonder what these elegant ladies are thinking and feeling as they lounge in their Belle poque finery, and take in the sound of music carried upon the evening breeze. This tendency towards the art of poetic evocation, to the suggestive over the narrative5 is consistent within Bunnys entire oeuvre, and is gracefully expressed in On the Landing.

Bunny painted On the Landing in the years immediately following his successful trip back to Australia in 1911. During this visit the expatriate artist met with critical appreciation for his work, which was acquired by private collectors and state galleries. He returned to Paris in 1912 and amongst other works continued to create female figural compositions, expanding upon the genre of feminine leisure with which he had always achieved commercial success.6

While close similarities exist in subject and setting, the vivid Symbolist poeticism that defines his nocturnal balcony scenes of a few years earlier, is replaced by a sense of naturalism in On the Landing. This is perhaps due to its earthy daytime tonal range that aesthetically calls to mind French Realism a noted influence on the development of his artistic vision.7 Yet while stylistically resonant with this movement, rather than a truthful depiction of the working classes that is associated with Realist painting, Bunny depicted bourgeois women resplendent with the elegant refinements of la belle poque. In doing so he portrays a kind of cultured feminine ideal that was prized during this artistic golden age of turn of the century France.

While they are beautiful, and in one sense decorative, the women in On the Landing are also modern and of their time and lack the sense of staged theatricality or artifice that can be detected in some of his earlier balcony scenes. In this work and in similar images of feminine leisure, Bunnys recurrent choice of a balcony setting is intriguing. While balconies remain within the domestic sphere and are thus linked to deeply entrenched ideas of feminine identity, they also physically protrude into the outside world, the domain of the unknown and the other. In this sense, the balcony creates a liminal zone that straddles both inside and outside physically and metaphorically.

Tied to the security of the home, yet offering the glimpse of a larger universe, the balcony provides a safe space for Bunnys women to dream of faraway places. For example, the reading woman in On the Landing stands physically present, yet mentally she is in the distant realm of the imagination. Similarly her seated companion does not address the viewer with her gaze, but rather seems to stare off into the distance outside the picture plane. This allusion to a potentially rich inner life that belies a rather still and passive exterior, appears a remarkably consistent factor within Bunnys depiction of women.

The artists loose handling of paint and sensitive treatment of light are also notable features within the present work. Bunny often painted women in profile, and here the standing figures face is cast in deep shadow, forming an effective contrast to the bright sunlit background. Depicted in shade, both womens features are gently lit from below, thus visible against the harsh glare of the direct sunlight that traverses the wall behind them. Their flowing dresses are rendered with assured brushstrokes that reveal Bunnys complete confidence in his medium of preference, oil on canvas.

Another painting created around the same time, On the Balcony c1913, again features two women on a balcony, one seated and the other standing in profile, reading a small book. While sharing obvious similarities to the present work, the daytime scene in On the Balcony is notably more optimistic in mood, as reflected in the bright landscape background and subtle smile that plays upon the lips of both figures.

This work has been identified by Mary Eagle as one of the sunny paintings Bunny created before the onset of World War I.8 It stands in contrast to the atmosphere of dreamy ennui and subtle sense of melancholy that pervades On the Landing, and its sheltered protagonists. Such paintings offer variant visions of the sensual mores of la Belle poque a precious time before the hardships of a war that forever altered the cultural, political and social landscape of Bunnys beloved France.


1. Edwards, D., Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, 2009, p.15
2. Rupert Bunny, quoted in Edwards, D., Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, p.14
3. Eagle, M., The Art of Rupert Bunny, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1991, p.72
4. Edwards, D., Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, p.20
5. Ibid., p.16
6. Eagle, M., The Art of Rupert Bunny, Australian National Gallery, Canberra, 1991, p.16
7. Edwards, D., Rupert Bunny: Artist in Paris, p.16
8. Eagle, M., The Art of Rupert Bunny, p.100


Marguerite Brown
Marguerite Brown is an independent arts writer and curator based in Melbourne, and General Manager of the Print Council of Australia Inc.


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