'Miss Grace Dunham' 1896
In the 19th century, wealthy families and public figures commissioned portraits as an affirmation of their social status. These commissions provided an important source of income for both painters and sculptors. They were also a means by which more conventional artists could enhance their reputation among patrons, by exhibiting these works at a prestigious, though conservative, public venue such as the Royal Academy in London.
Bertram Mackennal's reputation soared following the scandal that Circe created when it was shown at the Royal Academy in 1894. He exhibited there regularly for the rest of his career and, as a crowning honour, was admitted as a Royal Academician in 1922, the only Australian sculptor to receive such an accolade. Mackennal's exquisite marble bust of the young American Miss Grace Dunham is indicative of the sophisticated clientele that the sculptor secured from the 1890s.
Grace Dunham was born in New York and, like many of the cosmopolitan social set, made the transatlantic sea voyage to make her debut in London society in the 1890s. Mackennal skilfully captured the elegance and refined beauty of his subject. Her head is turned slightly, as if averting direct eye contact with the viewer, a detached poise befitting her social and unmarried status. She is 'clothed' in a stylised bodice decorated with a distinctly fashionable art nouveau motif. The sides and rear of the sculpture, however, remain largely unadorned, as this portrait bust would most likely have been placed in an alcove or recess in a fashionable New York or London residence.
Grace Dunham would have posed for Mackennal while he modelled her features in clay. As was accepted practice, a trained assistant would have then undertaken the laborious task of transferring the original clay model into the finished marble bust. Miss Grace Dunham was exhibited publicly at the Royal Academy in 1897, after which it remained in the possession of the sitter and her descendants for over half a century, before it was purchased by the National Gallery. It is a work that encapsulates the essence of youth, preserved in marble for a lifetime and beyond.
Steven Tonkin in Lloyd & Desmond, European & American Paintings and Sculptures 1870--1970 in the Australian National Gallery, Australian National Gallery, 1992, p 100
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002
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