Vanessa Bell reveals an affinity for pattern and design in this portrait of a woman, using jewelled colours and bold outlines. Research suggests that Bell painted this in June 1912, when she and her long-time companion, artist Duncan Grant, painted a Spanish woman who modelled for them. The same model is recognisable in Bell’s Spanish Lady (1912, New Walk Museum and Art Gallery, Leicester), Grant’s The Queen of Sheba (1912, Tate), and in Roger Fry’s Head of a Model (1913, Private Collection).
In a letter (6 June 1912) to artist-critic, Roger Fry, Bell described a technique she was experimenting with:
‘I am trying to paint as if I were mosaicing, not by painting in spots, but by considering the picture as patches each of which has to be filled by the definite space of colours as one has to do with mosaic or woolwork …’.
This followed a visit to the Church of San Vitale in Ravenna earlier that year, where Bell and Grant enjoyed the beautiful sixth-century mosaic of Empress Theodora, wife of Emperor Justinian. The ‘Byzantine’ style became increasingly fashionable in Europe and America by the early 1900s. In 1884, actress Sarah Bernhardt had revived the role of Theodora in Byzantine dress; and performances by the Ballets Russes, founded by Diaghilev in 1909, influenced fashion and painting.The lobby of the Woolworth Building (1914), New York’s first modern skyscraper, also reflected the Byzantine style.
Vanessa Bell painted and carried out decorative commissions throughout her life, designing fabrics, cushion covers, book jackets and interiors. Like her sister the writer Virginia Woolf, she belonged to the circle known as the Bloomsbury Group which included Clive Bell, whom she married in 1907. Bell worked for the Omega Workshops, an association of artists/craftsmen active from 1913 to 1919. She was also involved in the decorative work at Charleston Farmhouse near Lewes in Sussex. Now open to the public, this was Bell’s home until her death in 1961. Bell and Grant’s paintings were greatly influenced by exhibitions of Post-Impressionist art in London in 1910 and 1912, in which works by Cézanne, Picasso, Van Gogh and Gauguin were shown.
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