Rupert Bunny was of the first of G. F. Folingsby’s students at the National Gallery School to make it to Paris. Apart from a few visits, he did not return to Australia until 1933. This painting is one of his first successes, coming at the end of his four years in the atelier of Jean-Paul Laurens, the mural and history painter, where he improved his drawing skills and learnt to harness his natural colour sense.
Like many Parisian art students, Bunny fled the city in the summer months for the coastal towns of Brittany, in north-west France, sketching its beaches, villages and menhirs. These studies were then worked up into the settings of pictures such as this work , with the figures, studio nudes, dropped in. They are Symbolist works, with the sea-nymphs and tritons representing the forces of nature and, in this case, generation. Bunny must have known the work of the German painter, Arnold Böcklin; the two principal nudes in Sea idyll have been compared with figures in Böcklin’s A sea idyll, published in the Magazine of Art (Magazine of Art, vol. 8, 1885, p. 441) in 1885. Cabanel’s famous Birth of Venus, 1863 could also have been in the back of Bunny’s mind when he painted his reclining mermaid.
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia