Grace Cossington Smith was a pioneer of modernism in Australia. Her choice of subject matter was often domestic, or took on a documentary aspect as in The Curve of the Bridge (1928-29, National Gallery of Victoria collection) or The Lacquer Room (1935-36, Art Gallery of New South Wales collection). Academic or grandiose subjects might have been eschewed, but the essence of Cossington Smith's art was in the brilliant interplay of form and colour, which resulted in works of unsurpassed colour, rhythm and radiance.
Still Life with Wattle was painted in 1939, a joyous celebration of Australia's national flower that coincided with the political and social upheaval of the outbreak of World War Two in the same year. Personally also, the subject suggests a reaffirmation of life after the death of her beloved father in 1938. In much the same way as she had produced elegiac yet exuberant flowerpieces on the death of her mother in 1931 (Poinsettias, 1931, Private collection; Hippeastrums Growing 1931, Private collection), here too Cossington Smith seems to be challenging the supremacy of death through her vibrant choice of colour and imagery.
In keeping with Cossington Smith's daring modernist sensibility and great ilan, the eponymous wattle does not hold pride of place in the scene. Instead, a spherical vase takes centre stage, filled half-way with water and holding a white rose. The vase acts as a refractor of light and colour from the surrounding objects: shards of sunlight glint from its smooth, rounded surface, and the yellow and green of the wattle and the fuchsia fabric draped over the table are muted into green and blue by the cool tones of the water. In fact, the use of this vivid colour in fabric was one favoured by Cossington Smith throughout her career: seen in fabrics draped in Interior with Blue Painting (1956, National Gallery of Victoria collection) and Interior (1958, Queensland Art Gallery collection). It also featured in sister Diddy's coat in Lili Kraus in the Town Hall (1946, Private collection), in Church Interior (1941-42, Queensland Art Gallery collection) and was used as early as 1916 in The Reader (Art Gallery of New South Wales collection), acting as it does here as a prism for a range of other colours ranging from blue and purple to pink and yellow.
Still Life with Wattle combines Cossington Smith's characteristic stippled, almost Seurat-like brushwork with both angularity and rhythmic curves. The soft palette is suffused with a rosy light, highlighting the transparent quality of the two vases and the glass. The brightness of the yellow wattle in the upper left of the image is perhaps a precursor to the importance this colour would assume for the artist in her later still life and interior works of the 1960s and 1970s.
In the words of the artist, "Art is about 'whatsoever things are lovely', at the same time expressing things unseen - the golden thread running through time." (G. Cossington Smith in D. Hart, ed., Grace Cossington Smith, Canberra,
The loveliness of Still Life with Wattle lies in the magic of its construction and the brilliance of its colour: a prism through which the world of the artist continues to resonate with the viewer over twenty years after her death.
On the reverse of this image, Cossington Smith has painted a Moss Vale landscape with cattle, a study of cows grazing in hilly paddocks of yellows and greens. The artist frequently painted her more radical works on the reverse of others, as also seen in Horses and House with Trees (1933, private collection).