“My chief interest, I think, has always been colour, but not flat crude colour, it must be colour within colour, it has to shine; light must be in it.” — Interview with Hazel de Berg, 1965, National Library of Australia


Grace Cossington Smith was a pioneer of Post-impressionism in Australia yet it took over 40 years for her role in the development of modern Australian art to be recognised

Cossington Smith studied drawing at the atelier of Anthony Dattilo Rubbo in Rowe Street, Sydney in 1910 before a two-year sojourn in England. On her return in 1914, Cossington Smith and her family moved into the house at Turramurra where she would live and work for the next 60 years, making works depicting its garden, interior and surrounding environment. She returned to Rubbo’s studio to learn oil painting and quickly revealed her flair for capturing shimmering colour and light effects. Rubbo had recently been introduced to the latest developments in European painting via reproductions of work by Van Gogh, Gauguin, Cézanne, Seurat and other post-impressionists and encouraged Cossington Smith to pursue a modern approach to colour, light, line and form

Her ground-breaking work, The sock knitter, was painted in 1915 but its importance was not appreciated until the early 1960s, when Bernard Smith was researching his book, Australian Painting 1788-1960, and suggested to the Art Gallery of New South Wales that this work represented the starting point of modernism in Australia. It was the first work the artist had exhibited as a professional painter at the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1915, but it had never sold. Early in 1960, the Art Gallery of New South Wales sent curator Daniel Thomas to the artist’s home in Turramurra to discuss the work and Cossington Smith allowed him to take it back to the Gallery for inspection. The Trustees acquired it in August that year. Cossington Smith’s work was first exhibited with the Royal Art Society of New South Wales in 1915 and she sold her first work, an interior of her home, in 1918. In 1926 she joined Thea Proctor, George Lambert, Ralph Balson, Grace Crowley and Roland Wakelin at the Contemporary Group. She held her first solo show at Grosvenor Galleries, Sydney, in 1928 and continued to exhibit on a regular basis at Macquarie Galleries from 1932 to 1971, selling to a small but devoted circle of collectors. Her paintings were principally scenes of urban, suburban and domestic life, rendered in luminous and pointillist effects. Cossington Smith said she aimed to ‘express form in colour—colour within colour, vibrant with light.’ She captured the events, spaces and pace of urban life in city scenes of commuters and city-dwellers, such as The Lacquer Room 1936, the grand engineering project of building the Harbour Bridge which was the subject of a series of works, a Royal visit, both World Wars and the bushland surrounding the leafy suburb of Turramurra. After the deaths of her parents she moved her studio, which had previously been in the garden, inside the house and domestic interior scenes began to dominate her work. Cossington Smith lived alone after the death of her beloved sister, Margaret Smith, in 1962 and continued to paint for the next 10 years, creating vibrant works such as Interior in yellow. She was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) in 1973. A retrospective exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales in the same year raised her profile and confirmed her place in Australian art history. She was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) for her services to Australian art in 1983 Cossington Smith died at Roseville, Sydney in 1984

Biography written and edited by Dr Nicola Teffer in collaboration with NGA curatorial and research staff as part of Know My Name

Grace Cossington Smith appears in