Menzies Art Brands

BESSIE DAVIDSON, Still Life - Interior with Jug and Vase of Flowers


…Bessie Davidson [gives] in her still lifes, her interiors, indeed in her landscapes the full expression of her rich palette and of that full-blooded craftsmanship which generously encompasses l’essential in a harmonious whole.

Eduard Sarradin, Journal des Débats, Paris, 14 February 1937

Bessie Davidson belongs to a generation of Australian female artists who left Australia for Europe in the early 20th century and went on to forge a reputation abroad and at home. Davidson is best known for her intimate portrayals of women and children set in Parisian apartments, bold landscapes and vigorous, modernist still lifes. Her intent was to capture the light and atmosphere of her chosen subjects and to immerse the viewer in a cosmopolitan way of life.

Born in Adelaide, Bessie Davidson initially studied art in 1899 under Rose McPherson (later known as Margaret Preston), before the two artists embarked on their first trip abroad in 1904. Davidson studied briefly in Germany before moving to Paris where she became a student at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière. Forming a wide circle of artistic and literary friends, Davidson soaked up the atmosphere and saw first-hand the work of many great artists. She paid particular attention to the work of Vincent Van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and
Paul Cézanne.1

In 1906, Bessie Davidson returned to Australia before making her way back to Paris four years later in 1910. She briefly visited Australia again in 1914, but Davidson sailed immediately back to France with the outset of World War I, where she served as a Red Cross nurse. In Paris she established herself at Rue Boissonade, Montparnasse, in a studio which she was to keep for the rest of her life.

The Paris that Davidson settled into in the 1920s and 30s was a lively social and artistic milieu. Although somewhat reserved in nature, Davidson was an active participant in the arts scene. 

She exhibited regularly and became the first Australian woman to be elected to the Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In 1930 she became vice-president of La Société Femme Artists Modernes and she worked hard to support the work of other women artists, culminating in 1931 when she was awarded the Chevalier de la Légion d’honneur for her contribution to French art and life.

In the mid-1920s, Davidson changed from working mainly in tempera to painting in oil. This resulted in a dramatic change of style.2 Still Life - Interior with Jug and Vase of Flowers is an exemplar of this shift to bolder and more vigorously painted compositions. Her painting can confidently be dated to the mid-1930s on the grounds of style and technique alone.3 Along with the similarly sized Interior with Poppies, 1935, it also figures among Davidson’s largest works.

Still Life - Interior with Jug and Vase of Flowers combines Impressionist motifs with the compositional approach and techniques famously developed by earlier French artists, notably Bonnard, Vuillard and Cézanne. From Impressionism, Davidson borrows the motif of a flower placed in water in a transparent glass along with the device of cropping the subject for greater pictorial effect. The partly obscured objects in the painting, including a table and chair, lend an air of informality and intimacy to the scene, while the open door leading into another space invites the viewer in as if they too are in the same room. Despite its casual appearance, the composition has
been carefully arranged and orchestrated to become a harmonious whole.

The greatest compliment however is paid to the work of Paul Cézanne. The broken brushwork, restricted range of tones and use of flat areas of faceted colour to describe three-dimensional objects, such as the brown jug and scrunched up red cloth, show Davidson learning from his example and going on to make this approach entirely her own. The transition can be seen also in her elegant Interior with Poppies, 1935, in which the intimate setting, vibrant colour combinations and elaborate forms of the bouquet show an artist at the top of her craft.

Bessie Davidson remained in France during World War 2, returning afterwards to live in her Paris studio-apartment. She returned to Adelaide only once, in 1950. During this later period, Davidson continued to gain accolades for her works. In addition to solo shows in France, she exhibited in England and the USA, with her works entering major public collections in Australia, France, Scotland and the Netherlands, as well as in many private collections around the world. An exhibition of works from her studio, supplemented by loans from her South Australian relatives, was held two years after her death at the Osborne Gallery, Adelaide, 1967. This was followed up by comprehensive posthumous exhibitions of her work including Bessie Davidson: Paintings from private collections in France, held at the Paris Embassy, France, 1999. 

Exhibitions such as these, coupled with exacting new scholarship and more information that has been brought to light, have helped to refocus attention on this talented Australian-born artist.4 Characterised by fresh, direct colour, firmly applied brushstroke, and a bold approach to composition and form, Bessie Davidson’s work continues to inspire and intrigue. 


1. Hylton, J., Bessie Ellen Davidson (1879-1965), Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol. 13, Melbourne University Press, Melbourne, 1993

2.Little, P., Bessie Davidson (1779-1965), Eva Breuer Fine Art, Sydney. See also by Little, A studio in Montparnasse, Bessie Davidson: An Australian artist in Paris, Craftsman House, Melbourne, 2003

3. Intérieur á Villeneuve 1935, oil on composition board, 73.0 x 92.0 cm, Private collection. Reproduced Little, ibid, plate 31

4. Little, P., ‘The beauty of common things: The rediscovery of Bessie Davidson’, Art and Australia, 1999, vol. 36, no. 4, pp. 481-3

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