Who comes? is one of a series of works called ‘Days and Nights in August’, painted by Rupert Bunny between 1907 and 1911, which evoke a mood of intimacy and luxurious leisure; of perfume, poetry and distant music. The colours in Who comes? are few – white, black, brown, red, yellow – and they have been orchestrated so that small colour accents are played off against a basic theme. Warm sunlight, filtering through a boldly striped blind, colours the upper part of the picture, whereas in the half-light below the blind the flounced skirts shimmer translucently.
Bunny’s chief model, posing for both figures in this painting, was his wife Jeanne. She was ‘a beautiful French woman and her husband delighted to paint her in the long, flounced and flowing dresses of the period. Once he said, with faint distaste: “When short skirts came in I no longer wanted to paint women”’.1
The drapery has been painted in a way that has little relation to the bodies beneath. One reviewer in 1911 explained Bunny’s preference for loose drapery as a way of capturing or complementing the indefiniteness of nature, ‘leaving forms and outlines in a state of indecision and flux’.2 In contrast to the geometry of the striped blind, Bunny’s rendering of filmy cloth breaks the shapes so that the attention goes not to outlines and large areas but to surfaces and small accents. The effect is sensuous. Bunny was portraying a luxurious domesticity which, in the fashion terms of the day, was well represented by the tea-gown: ‘It gives a man a sort of luxurious feel of being an Oriental Pasha, as he lies in his chair, smoking the ever-present cigarette, to see himself surrounded by graceful houris clad in gauze and gorgeous draperies shimmering’.3Marcel Proust wrote at length on the same theme in A la recherche du temps perdu (1913–27) and, like Bunny, he lamented the passing of this excessively feminine style with the coming of the First World War.
1 Lucy Swanton, ‘Memoir of Rupert Bunny’, typescript, [Sydney]: Newcastle Region Art Gallery, 1968.
2 Melbourne Argus, 24 July 1911, p.7.
3 ‘Lamia’ in London Country Life, 28 September 1907.
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