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Object: Portrait of Katherine Mansfield

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Title Portrait of Katherine Mansfield
Production Rice, Anne Estelle (painter), 1918, Cornwall
Medium summary oil on canvas
Materials oil paint, canvas
Classification oil paintings, portraits
Technique oil painting
Dimensions Image: 655mm (Height) x 520mm (Width)
Frame: 864mm (Height) x 722mm (Width) x 60mm (Depth)
Credit line Purchased 1940 with T G Macarthy Trust funds
Registration number 1940-0009-1

Anne Estelle Rice painted this portrait of the writer Katherine Mansfield in Looe, Cornwall. Mansfield had joined her there for part of the spring and summer of 1918 in hopes of regaining her deteriorating health. Of the occasion of the portrait she wrote, ‘A. came early and began the great painting — me in that red, brick red frock with flowers everywhere. It’s awfully interesting, even now. I painted her in my way as she painted me in hers: her eyes … little blue flowers plucked this morning.’1 Rice, an American by birth, had travelled to Europe for the first time in 1906. She met Mansfield in her Paris studio, and the two women became close friends.

Strong colours, an emphasis on line, and the use of pattern repeated over the entire surface are the main features of Portrait of Katherine Mansfield. The predominant colour was suggested by Mansfield who, like Rice, loved red. The colour is used expressively, its vibrant intensity enhanced by the contrasting green shadows on neck and hands.

There are no softened outlines, and contours are left boldly as literal lines at the jaw and ear, and around the figure’s left leg and hip. Rice was unconcerned with ‘finish’, and the raw canvas shows through in places, as does the under-drawing. Nor is there any of the fine detailing of face and hands found in conventional portraiture. Rice’s main concern was the integration of the figure with the background, and she achieved this by bringing the background forward, the repeating floral patterns of a jug of flowers, wallpaper — or maybe a patterned shawl — drawing attention to the surface.

Rice’s style was formed in Paris, where from 1907 she was part of the circle around Scottish expatriate artists John D Fergusson and Samuel John Peploe. She quickly absorbed the expressive colour of the fauve painters, including their method of juxtaposing primary and secondary colours. Her innate feeling for decorative line and pattern was also stimulated by the brilliant costumes and sets of the Ballets Russes.

Vicki Robson

This essay appears in Art at Te Papa, (Te Papa Press, 2009).

1. Katherine Mansfield, letter to John Middleton Murray, [17 June 1918], cited in Vincent O’Sullivan and Margaret Scott (eds), The collected letters of Katherine Mansfield, vol. 2 (1918–1919), Clarendon Press, Oxford, and Oxford University Press, New York, 1987, pp. 244–45.

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