The Blue dress 1892 signed and dated 'Tom Roberts. / 92.' lower centre oil on panel 42.5 x 19.0cm (16 3/4 x 7 1/2in).
PROVENANCE Private Collection, London Fine Australian Paintings, Sotheby's, Melbourne, 27 November 1995, lot 44 (illus.) John Playfoot, Melbourne Deutscher Fine Art, Melbourne The Reg Grundy AC OBE and Joy Chambers-Grundy Collection, acquired in 1996
The intense mining and scrutiny of Tom Roberts' life and work has few parallels in Australian art history. Whilst Eugene von Guerard stars in two novels (and surely a film in waiting?), as well as several impressive exhibition catalogues, Roberts is the focus of two of the most sustained and wide-ranging single-authored art historical projects in Australia: the catalogue raisonée by Helen Topliss and the biography by Humphrey McQueen. Yet Roberts also eludes the stereotypical familiarity of his prominence. His story is melancholy as well as triumphant, despite the high regard directed to his images. From being the agent who shaped the urban avant garde's imaging of both the visual reality and the dreamed-of ethos of the emerging Australian nation in the late nineteenth century, for nearly three decades from the 1900s on - double the years of success from c. 1885 to 1900 - he lingered in a half-life of plodding tortuous production of pleasant, but rarely incisive pictures.
A second irony: following recent North American and European scholarship, Roberts' claims to radicalism are validated by his paintings of fashionable women more than the fundamentally academic set pieces of rural labour. Over the past two decades scholars have explored the interplay between nineteenth century art and dress, culminating in a major international exhibition that integrates paintings and garments of 1860-1890 within the public gallery space: Impressionism, Fashion, and Modernity, Art Institute of Chicago in association with the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York, and Musée d'Orsay, Paris, 2012-2013. Painting male and female fashion was, as much as broken brushwork and subdivision of hues, a visible sign and demonstrable proof of modernity and progressive outlook in the second half of the nineteenth century. Baudelaire's engagement with changing fashions of dress and behaviour as a sign of the potential "greatness" of modern life and art strongly influenced artistic innovation in the nineteenth century, and much avant garde art writing made similar linkages between fashion in clothes and newness.
The blue dress doubly encodes "the modern". In terms of the present interest in fashion and art, it demonstrates again that Roberts was Baudelaire's ideal "Painter of Modern Life", as much as any of the artists whom the French critic and poet admired. Simultaneously The blue dress upholds the older formalist interpretation of the Heidelberg School as the "Australian Impressionists" who imported the virtu of radical painting. The direct, abstracting tachiste brush strokes nominally indicate a spatial context to frame the figure, yet present nothing more than the visual traces of the movements of the artist's brush, the mere sensation of laying on paint. If we admire Roberts' electric, hot-wired contact of mind to pigment and support via the hand, imaging of fashion is the medium through which Roberts' skill speaks. His clarity of vision and brushed-in drawing captures the cut of sleeves and bodice, the shadows and folds of the skirt. The scattered spots suggest both the physical nature of the patterned stuff of the dress and the effect of light on surfaces. The dress is everyday and vernacular, but more practical than showy or chic. Whilst the neckline is high, perhaps boned, the bodice is loose and unfitted, resembling the blouses that were increasingly becoming popular again after a quarter of a century of disfavour. The sitter is informally situated in Roberts' space, and is not paying a ritual social call as she wears neither hat nor gloves in his presence.
The blue dress references two major subsets of Roberts' oeuvre. Gesturally sketching direct to the surface and dissolving legibility into expressionist scumbling recalls the Nine by Five panels of 1889. Concurrently although less stylised in line and silhouette, The blue dress belongs to the major series of portraits on wood-grained panels painted in Sydney in the 1890s. The male sitters represent Sydney identities from bohemian artists and actors through to the social, political and commercial elites. These panels ratify a Marxist-inclined reading of Roberts' work insofar as they trace an acknowledgement of social structure and leverage of power in late nineteenth century Sydney. Conversely the women, apart from one or two actresses, remain generally unidentified, without a specific role in public life. The female subjects are mood pieces, with little identifiable narrative content beyond their "beauty" - itself significant in the new emphasis upon formalism emerging in France during the Second Empire - and the image of fashionable dress.
Were an exhibition to be staged exploring the interaction of fashion and art in nineteenth century Australia, Roberts would have a central position. Even when painting broadly, he is not only highly conversant with the forms of current fashion but makes no attempt to classicise or disguise the currency of his sitter's dress. Roberts' cognisance of the fashion around him, whilst hardly dwelt upon by generations of art historians,1 is as persuasive and as significant as any other claims that can be made on his behalf and would even perhaps serve to win him a more secure reputation outside of Australia.
1 Cf Juliette Peers "Two tenants of Number 9 Collins Street: Tom Roberts and Kate Keziah Eeles " Craft and Design Enquiry # 4, Online Journal. http://epress.anu.edu.au/apps/bookworm/view/craft+%2B+design+enquiry%3B+issue+4%2C+2012/10031/ch02.html