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Hilda’s horrible dress

One of the most rewarding things about looking at art is trying to discover something other than what is initially apparent. The painting I saw at the NGA this week is a case in point.

The work hangs on the second floor in the Australian collection. It’s by Australian female artist Hilda Rix Nicholas.

Nicholson, H.R. Les fleurs dédaignées . 1925

Nicholson, H.R. Les fleurs dédaignées . 1925

The thing I love most about the piece is that the subject looks so damn miserable.

I have written before about how women have historically tended to put more of their personal emotions into their portraits than our male counterparts and perhaps it’s one of the reasons they struggled for so long to have their work seen as professional and worthy. This painting is an excellent example of this.

Painted in 1925 as an entry to the Salon, significant effort has gone into the replication of an early Mannerist portrait style, except for one thing – the subject is clearly pissed off.

Perhaps she is unhappy with her flowered frock. She’s spilt her lunch down the front for one thing – and the girdled, bustled and breathless restriction renders the subject, a French model and prostitute, much like a porcelain doll.

The title may give us a clue as to why she is so unhappy. Les fleurs dédaignées translates as The flowers scorned.

With her masked, fragile and very pale complexion, it’s easy for us to imagine she has been scorned and disappointed by lover or potential suitor. The cast off daffodils at the feet are symbolic suggesting the story of Narcissus – perhaps Nicholas, instead of painting Echo (Narcissus’s spurned lover) as pathetically passive and voiceless, put a spin on the story and painted Echo as a petulant and moody princess?

Whatever the story, I suspect Ms Hilda herself was rather plucky, despite most accounts suggesting she was a conservative painter and in many ways an unlikely author of this paradoxical work. The fastidious and beautiful tapestry-like background and meticulously painted polished floor are an uncanny stage on which to place this unhappy young woman in a stained dress she’s doesn’t like.

Read more about Hilda Rix Nicholas here. A book about her was published last year by the National Library.

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