Katherine Mansfield Portrait 100 Years On
The well-known portrait of New Zealand’s greatest writer, Katherine Mansfield, is 100 years old. It was painted by the American artist Anne Estelle Rice. At that time, Mansfield and Rice were both staying in Cornwall, the writer at the Headland Hotel at Looe on the south-east coast of the county, and the artist, together with her husband, theatre and art critic Raymond Drey, nearby. The Arts Desk reflects.
In December 1917, Mansfield had been diagnosed with tuberculosis, at that time incurable, and from which she died five years later, but in May, her very brief marriage to George Bowden having been terminated, she married writer-editor John Middleton Murry. Mansfield and Murry were to have a highly unusual relationship, notable not only for its frequent and lengthy partings. Mansfield was in Cornwall without him, with the aim of resting in the fresh seaside air. We know the date of the sitting from a letter that Mansfield sent to her husband in London on 17 June:
“Anne came early and began the great painting – me in that red [sic] brick red frock with flowers everywhere. It’s awfully interesting even now.”
In Rice’s portrait of Mansfield, the contrast between the colourful flower-filled background and Mansfield’s “brick red” dress, and the serious, intense expression on her face is striking. This is no warm, cuddly representation of the writer, rather a representation that underlines Mansfield’s seriousness. At the same time, the light streaming in from the left leaves the right side of her face highly illuminated with the left side in relative darkness, the shadow, together with the yellow on her cheek, signalling her recently-diagnosed TB. The floral background to the portrait is not easy to read – not least the flowers themselves. Those to the left of the sitter are a mixture in a vase, whereas those to the right are decoration on wallpaper or curtain material. Mansfield sits in an armchair, her hands, crossed on her lap and holding a book, all indicated by mere slabs of paint.
Original article by Roger Neill, The Arts Desk, June 15, 2018.
Photo by Museum of New Zealand Te Papa Tongarewa.