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Davidson, Bessie Ellen (1879–1965)

by Jane Hylton

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

Bessie Ellen Davidson (1879-1965), artist, was born on 22 May 1879 in North Adelaide, second of five children of David Davidson, mining secretary, and his wife Ellen, née Johnson, both from Scotland. Bessie was educated in Adelaide, studied art in 1899 under Rose McPherson (who was later to be known as Margaret Preston) and exhibited with the South Australian Society of Arts in 1901-03. After her mother's death, in July 1904 Bessie left for Europe with Rose and studied briefly at the Künstlerinner Verein, Munich, Germany. They moved to Paris in November. At the Académie de la Grande Chaumière her teacher was René-Xavier Prinet. She was also taught by Raphael Collin, Gustave Courtois and Richard Miller. Davidson formed a wide circle of artistic and literary friends, and particularly admired the work of Vincent van Gogh, Pierre Bonnard, Edouard Vuillard and Paul Cézanne. Next year she exhibited her 'Petite Marie' at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français; in 1906 two of her paintings were shown at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She became a founding member of and exhibited with the Salon des Tuileries.

Back in Adelaide in December, she leased a studio with McPherson and they held a combined show in March 1907. Davidson exhibited regularly with the S.A.S.A., her work including still lifes, portraits and landscapes. In 1908 the National Gallery of South Australia bought her portrait of her friend Gladys Reynell: typical of her early work, it was informed by Prinet's classical style and reflected contemporary interest in tonal values. Her self-portrait (1909) shows her mass of swept-up, chestnut hair, expressive, brown eyes and her favourite smock; it also reveals her independent spirit, restraint and dignity. A slight woman, who dressed in a rather severe style, she was a good-humoured and stimulating companion.

Davidson returned to Paris in 1910, exhibited annually, and travelled through Europe and Russia. Home again in 1914, she completed the delightful, light-filled 'Mother and Child' which depicts her sister and infant niece seated on their verandah. When World War I began she sailed immediately for Paris. There she joined the French Red Cross Societies and worked as a nurse, eventually running a hospital for the wounded.

After the war Davidson showed her paintings frequently in Paris, winning praise from the critics. She was an associate (1920), member and secretary (1922) of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, and is said to have studied under Rupert Bunny. In 1930 she became vice-president of La Société Femmes Artistes Modernes; she was also a founding member of the Société Nationale Indépendentes. With her career approaching its zenith, Bessie sent a message to her father: 'I can sell as many pictures as I can paint. I was born under a lucky star . . . never worry about me'. In 1931 she was appointed to the Légion d'honneur. She contributed to L'Exposition du Groupe Feminin at the Petit Palais de la Ville de Paris in 1938. Davidson was later represented in the annual International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, and exhibited at St Louis and New York, United States of America, in Edinburgh, and with the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, in London and at Venice, Italy.

Like Anne Dangar, Davidson remained in France during World War II. Friends sheltered her at Grenoble where she continued to paint. In 1945 she returned to her studio-apartment in the Latin Quarter, Paris, which was her base for the rest of her life. Often she stayed on her farm at Buchy, near Rouen; every year she visited relations in Scotland; and she returned to Adelaide once, in l950.

Davidson died on 22 February 1965 at Montparnasse and was buried in a cemetery at St Saëns, Normandy. In 1967 an exhibition of her work was held at the Osborne Art Gallery, Adelaide. Her early paintings showed the influence of Margaret Preston; by the 1910s and early 1920s her style broadened to become freer and somewhat Impressionistic; from the 1930s onward her still lifes and interiors were vigorous, modernist compositions characterized by deep and dramatic colouring. Davidson's freely-painted and finely-composed landscapes, ranging from coastal scenes to snow-filled views of mountains and buildings, show her lifelong interest in and ability to capture light and atmosphere. Her work is held by several State galleries and by the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Select Bibliography

  • Dictionnaire Critique et Documentaire des Peintres, Sculpteurs, Dessinateurs et Graveurs (Paris, 1976)
  • R. Biven, Some Forgotten, Some Remembered (Adel, 1976)
  • N. Ioannou, Ceramics in South Australia 1836-1986 (Adel, 1986)
  • R. Butler, The Prints of Margaret Preston (Melb, 1987)
  • S. C. Wilson, From Shadow into Light (Adel, 1988)
  • News (Adelaide), 3 Sept 1931
  • Advertiser (Adelaide), 25 Feb, 1 June 1967
  • Financial Review, 28 Apr 1988
  • Art Gallery of South Australia correspondence
  • Art Gallery Board of South Australia papers.

Citation details

Jane Hylton, 'Davidson, Bessie Ellen (1879–1965)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/davidson-bessie-ellen-9907/text17541, published first in hardcopy 1993, accessed online 21 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 13, (MUP), 1993

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