Peter Purves Smith arrived in London in February 1938 and soon moved to Paris where he worked intensely for thirteen months before returning to London in April 1939, on the eve of World War II. He joined up for military service there in 1940.
Some of his best known images, The Nazis, Nuremberg 1938, Early Morning in Paris 1938, The Diplomats 1939, and his recalled Australian masterpiece, Kangaroo Hunt 1 were created in Paris. Mother and Child was painted in there towards the end of that period, in January/February 1939. In his letters to his fianci Maisie he first refers to it as "Ma and kid" and when finished as "Mother and child" and further as having "developed into an old Italian masterpiece complete with miniature landscape and foot perched on a hill" [later altered]. (M. Eagle, Peter Purves Smith: a painter in peace and war, Sydney, 2001, p.108). Mary Eagle relates, via Maisie Drysdale, that the artist's mother Loe gave the painting to Maie Casey after his death in 1949.
The subject is a three quarter length figure of a young mother protectively holding her child and set before or painted in a Renaissance style landscape with mountains, lake and castle tower. The colour range is muted - mauves, blues, pinks, "mushroom" and "kaki" green. The image is humanist as the artist's original title implies but, given its tenderness, the later reference to "Madonna" is understandable.
Mother and Child relates to another essay on protective tenderness, Lovers, painted at the same time. They share a similar restricted colour range and exaggeration of arms and hands that give pictorial conviction to the embrace. The lovers are self-absorbed and enact their role in an interior space beneath a painting of a relining nude. Mother and child is more ambiguously structured - the child looks towards the mother, she looks anxiously towards the viewer and we are uncertain as to the reality of the background. If any quality is central to the art of Peter Purvis Smith it that of the enigma.
Maie Casey had great enthusiasm for contemporary art and claimed to have brought the first oil painting by Picasso (Le Repos 1932) to Australia in 1937. She was particularly supportive of George Bell and the Bell School. The young art student Yvonne Atkinson recalled "the interest she took in the students not only by way of encouragement but in a practical sense. She bought one or two of my pictures" (Y. Atkinson, autobiographical manuscript (unpublished), quoted in M. Eagle and J. Minchin, The George Bell School: Students, Friends and Influences, Melbourne, 1981, pp176-77).
The Caseys acquired many paintings by, amongst others, Arnold Shore, Mary Evatt, Yvonne Atkinson, Geoff Jones and Russell Drysdale, Loudon Sainthill, Adrian Feint Rupert Bunny and Mary Cecil Allen.
Their most substantial patronage was of Peter Purves Smith, regarded by Maie Casey as "the most original of artists" who looked beyond the formal values of Bell's teaching and pursued an imaginative/emotional aesthetic, "the first [from the school] to do so"
(M. Casey, "George Bell in Bourke Street" in Art and Australia, Vol 4, no 2, September 1966, pp.120-124). Among his works acquired were The Diplomats 1939 (given to the National Gallery of Australia in 1979), Early Morning in Paris 1938 (purchased by the National Gallery of Australia), Mother and Child 1939 and Kangaroo hunt 1 (given to the Museum of Modern Art, New York in 1941).
After her husband's posting in 1940 as Australian Minister to the United States of America she decorated the Washington Legation with "distinctly Australian" furnishings and hung it with thirty five Australian paintings, twenty of her own and fifteen on loan . (D. Langmore, Glittering Surfaces: A Life of Maie Casey, Sydney, 1997, p. 67)
Seven of these were lent to the first travelling exhibition of Australian art, the Carnegie Corporation sponsored Art of Australia 1788 -1941. Dick Casey wrote the catalogue foreword and they hosted a reception after it opened at National Gallery Washington in October 1941.
Diane Langmore's biography of the Lady Casey illustrates a photograph of Maie in the Legation on Cleveland Avenue proudly standing before Peter Purves Smith's painting Kangaroo Hunt.
We are grateful to John Jones for providing this catalogue entry