Roland Wakelin painted The fruit seller of Farm Cove at weekends in the dim light of a boarding house bedroom in Sydney. The year was 1915, the war was in progress, Australian casualties were high and public feeling about the war was at hysterical pitch. That year Wakelin worked as a clerk five and a half days a week, living with his family in no more than a bedroom and painting on Sundays. The uneven light in the room meant that he had periodically to carry the cumbersome, wet canvas into the open air to check the tonality.
Painting the picture was a paradoxical exercise for, as Wakelin said later, he intended to paint light: light expressed through colour, pure Impressionism. Yet he did not enjoy the luxury of working rapidly before his subject in the open air. Instead he worked from his head and slowly. Did he realise that under these circumstances he could not paint a pure impression? He was aided only by a small sketch made on the spot at Farm Cove of ‘the old fruit stall that used to be there in those days’.62 He played freely with the placement of buildings.
To compensate, he had rules. He used a palette limited to black and white and three primaries – alizarin crimson, French blue and cadmium yellow – applying colours pre-mixed in a juxtaposition of small dabs, in emulation, he said, ‘of the Impressionist method of simulating the vibration of light’.1 For the viewer, the main effects of The fruit seller of Farm Cove – after its morning light and misty, wintry atmosphere – are the opaque, finely striped and dotted applications of paint and the careful, even rigid composition. Wakelin emphasised only those volumes that are emphatically cubic and his composition concentrated on a few long, straight lines. Its intellectualisation and artistic problem-solving qualify The fruit seller of Farm Cove as one of the first full-scale modernist paintings in Australia.
Living and painting in and around Sydney until his death in 1971, Wakelin remained faithful to theories of spectrum colour and simplified form, conscientiously working with the full range of rainbow tints and eschewing brilliant effects.
1 Roland Wakelin, ‘Post-Impressionism in Sydney: Some personal recollections’, AGNSW Quarterly, January 1962, p.91.
2 Mary Eagle, ‘Roland Wakelin, The Fruitseller of Farm Cove’, Australian National Gallery Association News, Spring 1983, pp.2–3.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002