Rupert Bunny

Rupert Bunny

In my last blog, I looked at the life and works of the Australian painter Agnes Goodsir, who had spent a large part of her life in Paris.  Today I am showcasing another Australian artist, Rupert Bunny, who also spent many years in the French capital and was one of the most successful expatriate Australian artists of his generation.

Self portrait by Rupert Bunny (c.1920)

Rupert Charles Wulsten Bunny was born in St Kilda, Melbourne on September 29th 1864.  Rupert was the third son of a English-born, Eton educated, Brice Frederick Bunny.  His father had studied law and was called to the Bar in 1844, becoming a talented equity barrister in London.  The news of the discovery of gold in the 1850s in New South Wales and Victoria whetted Brice’s appetite and in October 1852 he arrived on Australian soil intending to make a quick fortune before returning to London.  However neither of his plans materialised, as after six months of prospecting he had nothing to show. However, the one bit of luck he had was when he emigrated to Australia he brought with him all his law books and so, after his failed prospecting period, he went to Melbourne and resurrected his legal career in October 1853.  In June 1856 Rupert Bunny’s father married German-born Maria Hedwig Dorothea Wulsten, who had followed him to Australia. They set up home in St Kilda, where he was active in the Municipal Council.  In 1873 Brice Bunny was appointed an acting County Court judge but his health started to deteriorate and he had to resign from the legal profession.  He died on 2 June 1885 at St Kilda, Victoria, leaving three sons, one of them a barrister, and three daughters. His wife, Rupert’s mother, died in 1902.

Hair Drying by Rupert Bunny (c.1908)

Rupert Bunny had three sisters, Alice and Annette who were five and two years older than him and Hilda who was three years younger.  He also had two older brothers, Herman and George and a younger brother Brice. Rupert attended the Alma Road Grammar School in St Kilda, and later the Hutchins School in Hobart.  In 1881 he enrolled at the University of Melbourne where he studied civil engineering.  He was not happy with the course and abandoned it.  At one time he decided he wanted to become an actor, but this future path was abruptly blocked by his parents.  Maybe as a compromise between his desires and those of his parents, he settled for joining the National Gallery Schools under British-born Oswald Rose Campbell and Irish-born George Frederick Folingsby, who was the director of the National Gallery and master in the School of Art.  Whilst there he became friends with his fellow students including Frederick McCubbin, E. Phillips Fox and Louis Abrahams.

The Descent from the Cross by Rupert Bunny (1898)

The painting was hung at the 1898 Royal Academy in London

In 1884, at the age of twenty, Rupert Bunny left Australia and went to London.  Once in the English capital he enrolled at St Johns Wood Art School where one of his tutors was the English painter, Philip Calderon. Two years later, in 1886, he left England and headed for Paris to study under Jean-Paul Laurens in his studio at the Académie Julian. He left Laurens in 1886 and went to study at the Académie Colarossi where he studied under the French painter, Pierre Paul Léon Glaize.  His studies here made him an accomplished academic history painting – paintings on a large scale, with complex compositions based on mythological, historical and biblical subjects, and the depictions would characteristically contain multiple figures. From 1888, now in Paris, Bunny exhibited at the Parisian Salon de la Société des Artistes Français (Old Salon).

The Tritons by Rupert Bunny (1890)

During the late 1880s he produced a series of large-scale, delicately coloured sea idylls peopled with mythological and pagan creatures including mer-folk. Having a German mother, Rupert remembered the German myths and legends. Bunny often drew inspiration from the German myths and legends that she would read to him and characters from these often appeared in his depictions.  These stories were balanced by his father telling his son tales from the bible and Greek and Roman mythology.  One such painting was entitled The Tritons which Bunny completed in 1890. The painting was exhibited in Paris at the Old Salon in 1890, and it was the first painting by an Australian to receive an honourable mention at the event. The painting depicts a group of tritons, who were legendary creatures that lived both on land and at sea.  They are enjoying a lazy moment in their calm surroundings.  Rupert Bunny, in this work, lays before us some of the features which would become characteristics of his work, such as an attraction he had for mythological subjects and the depiction of the mystery and glamour within an intimate setting. Look how he has expertly shaped a twilight atmosphere by the use of subtle colour schemes, as is the case where the pale blue, silvery ocean and pink-toned sky are quietly reflected in the flesh tones of the figures.

Pastoral by Rupert Bunny (1893)

His 1893 painting entitled Pastoral is a good example of the large-scale mythological works Bunny painted during his early years in France.  The painting is an allegory about the life-changing power of music. Before us we see youths and pagan beings who are all mesmerised by the strains of the pipes and soothed into a state of heightened consciousness.  The figures we see in the painting are contemporary youths and Rupert used their inclusion to show that Arcadia was not something we read about in days gone by but a state of mind.  There is a dream-like quality about the depiction and note the inclusion of vermillion poppies, a flower which symbolised sleep.

Madame Melba by Rupert Bunny (1902)

Rupert Bunny, besides being a great artist, was also a talented pianist and composer.   The love of all things musical probably persuaded him to paint a number of portraits of the Australian soprano, Dame Nellie Melba.  She had, during the latter days of the nineteenth century, moved to Europe to cement a career as a professional singer.  Rupert’s portrait of her entitled Madame Melba was completed around 1902.  Rupert had known her since the 1880s.  The painting, once completed, hung in the singer’s London home.  Later, she presented it to Her Majesty’s Theatre in Melbourne.  The National Gallery of Victoria bought the painting in 1980 and later it was loaned to Government House in Melbourne Victoria.

Percy Grainger by Rupert Bunny (1904)

Bunny created portraits of a number of Europe-based Australian musicians and performers.  He was commissioned, by twenty-two-years-old Australian pianist and composer, Percy Grainger, to paint his portrait in the early days of his professional musical career.  Grainger became acquainted with Bunny through Nellie Melba. Whilst living in London Rupert Bunny attended gatherings at Grainger’s rooms at King’s Road where the guests would sing many of Grainger’s compositions.  In this portrait, the young musician is portrayed as a relaxed young gentleman in the tradition of what was termed the ‘swagger’ portrait, which aptly reflected Grainger’s own ambitions. In Grainger’s left hand is a sheet of music, a conscious reference to Grainger’s celebrated career.

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife by Rupert Bunny (c.1895)

Portrait of the Artist’s Wife, Jeanne Morel by Rupert Bunny (1902)

In 1892, Rupert Bunny met his future wife, Jeanne Heloise Morel who was a fellow art student.  It was love at first sight as Bunny was bowled over by her beauty.  John Longstaff, a fellow Australian painter who was living in Paris, remembers the first meeting between Rupert and Jeanne, saying:

“…I remember … the very night they met, and how he fell in love with her at first sight.  She was a regular Dresden china girl with a deliciously tip-titled nose…”

The meeting was to prove a turning point in Rupert’s life, not just with the romance which followed, but by his change in his artistic style.  A colleague of Bunny commented:

“…  Jeanne changed not only Bunny’s life but also his art, which now focused on subjects in which beautiful women played the central role, with Jeanne as his favourite model…”

Rupert Bunny was influenced by Morel and she became his favourite model who featured in his depictions of the idyllic and leisured lifestyle of the Belle Epoque. Her graceful form and sensuous features were seen in many of his works, embodying Bunny’s feminine ideal. Bunny was also greatly influenced by the English Pre-Raphaelite painters such as John Everett Millais.

 Portrait of Mlle Morel by Rupert Bunny (1895)

 Portrait of Mlle Morel by Rupert Bunny, which he completed in 1895, is the first, major full-length portrait by Bunny of Morel. It is a tender depiction of his then girlfriend that he painted and was submitted and accepted into the Paris Salon that year.  It was a painting which marked the turning point of Rupert Bunny’s art from the Allegorical to the Belle Époque.

A Summer Morning by Rupert Bunny (1905)

Jeanne Heloise Morel was born on July 29th 1871 in Paris.  Her mother was Marguerite Morel, an unmarried servant. Her father, who was never named on the birth certificate, was said by Jeanne to be Eugénie François Morel, who served as an officer in the French Navy.  Jeanne received training in Fine Arts at the Orphanage of Arts at 96 rue de Vannes in Paris.  In 1884, when she was thirteen-years-old, Jeanne made her public debut at the Société des Artistes and subsequently exhibited at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts, working in oils.  Jeanne-Heloise Morel married Rupert Bunny in London in March 1902.

Dolce Far Niente (Sweet Idleness) by Rupert Bunny (c.1897)

The painting’s title means sweet idleness or the sweetness of doing nothing. Rupert Bunny would paint numerous similarly composed works featuring  groups of women relaxing, dreaming, dressing or undressing close by expanses of water.  The French art critic Gustave Geffroy was a great believer in Rupert Bunny and loved his work, Dolce Far Niente and in a review of the Salon of 1897 at which the painting was exhibited, he wrote:

“…To discover the promises and creations of newcomers, it is necessary to research, to go to canvases attracted by a soft radiance, a quiet force, a secret charm….I like the poetry of Dolce Far Nniente by Mr Bunny [of] women with graceful bodies, and beautiful and instinctive faces, who dream by the sea…”

Gustave Geffroy was a great advocate of Bunny’s work for the next three decades and in a 1917 review he wrote:

“He is a brilliant and spirited artist…at one and the same time, a realist and a visionary, an observer of truth and a poet of the world of dreams…”

Endormies by Rupert Bunny (c.1904)

Rupert Bunny’s 1904 painting entitled Endormies (Sleepy) portrays two female figures at the water’s edge relaxing and lost in a world of dreams. Rupert modelled the sleeping figure once again on his wife Jeanne Morel.  Her elegant and sensuous physical qualities enhanced many of his paintings.  In this depiction the artist has included a rose by the side of one of the sleeping women.  The rose was a traditional symbol of love and sensuous power.  The white swans we see in the background symbolise the attributes of grace and beauty. Rupert, like many artists also used the motif of a small dog, which often signifies marital fidelity.  In this painting Rupert has placed the animal sleeping at the feet of his mistress.

Summer Time by Rupert Bunny (1907)

In all Rupert Bunny’s depictions of his wife Jeanne and her friends there was an aura of beauty and elegance.  The clothes which adorned the females were typified in their fashionable trimmings and reflected the stylishness of the apparently endless summers that was La Belle Époque. The public loved these works of art and they became the most commercially and critically successful works of his career. Rupert Bunny’s 1907 work entitled Summer Time splendidly validates his skill as a draughtsman and his consummate treatment of large-scale works such as this one which measures 250 x 300 cms. It was exhibited at that year’s Paris Salon. It was his most ambitious work.

in situ at the Art Gallery of New South Wales

The painting depicts a spirit of leisure and sensuality as we observe seven voluptuous women relaxing inside a bathhouse on the Seine. It is a floating swimming pool sealed off from public view where women could bathe modestly. We see 0ne of the women is undressing preparing to climb down into the water while another female, on the left of the painting, is getting dressed before she emerges into public view.

The Rape of Persephone by Rupert Bunny (1913)

Rupert Bunny was never afraid to shy away from changing his artistic style.  He had a refreshing willingness to keep reinventing himself and during his life, he simply kept an eye on what was the most fashionable style, so that his popularity would not wane.  Of the painting, The Rape of Persephone, one art critic, George Bell, described it as:

“…a glorious riot of colour from the finest imaginative Australia has produced…”

Fresque by Rupert Bunny (1921)

Rupert Bunny moved through successive styles and was strongly influenced by British pre-Raphaelites French primitives, symbolists and Post-Impressionists.  He was particularly influenced by Matisse and his love of Sergei Diaghilev’s Ballet Russes, an itinerant ballet company begun in Paris that performed throughout Europe between 1909 and 1929. 

Salome by Rupert Bunny (c.1919)

The paintings of Rupert Bunny around this time began to be ones of heightened colour and abstracted, rhythmical forms.

In 1933, Bunny returned to live in Melbourne where he continued to paint until his mid-70s. He died on May 25th 1947, aged 82.  Rupert’s forte was his ability to change with the times and he was always open to new artistic influences.  Throughout his life he had always been motivated when it came to his painting. He never tired of experimenting with colour combinations and was never afraid to take risks. He was a master colourist.

Much has been written about Rupert Bunny and this blog has just scratched at the surface of his life but I hope it will tempt you into reading more about this great Australian painter.

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