In 1930, Roy de Maistre moved from Sydney to London, having established an international reputation for a colour music system that he had developed ten years earlier. His forward-looking approach marked him out for inclusion within avant garde circles upon his arrival in England, where he developed a strong bond with Henry Moore and, later, Francis Bacon.
The outbreak of World War II in 1939 was a catalyst for de Maistre to turn to the Catholic Church, and at the same time marked a new stage in his career. In 1945, a first exhibition of modern religious art cemented a new preference for religious subjects in the artist's oeuvre.
Madonna and Child, painted circa 1944, represents one of de Maistre's earliest works with an overtly religious subject. However, perhaps befitting a work created at this transitional stage in the artist's career, the work is also closely related, at least in stylistic terms, to de Maistre's earlier portraiture.
In Madonna and Child, de Maistre followed his familiar methodology seen in portraits of his cousin, Camilla Keogh, and of his friend Ann, Lady Butler. In pose and setting, the Madonna bears marked similarities to de Maistre's Portrait of Mrs. Florence Bevan, for whom the artist "developed a deep love" (H. Johnson, Roy de Maistre, Sydney, 1995, p.109). Bevan's portrait, in which the subject is seated on a buttercup yellow chair in front of a carpet of baroque richness, is transformed in Woman in a Chair (Art Gallery of South Australia) to an abstracted yet still familiar image. Bevan's figure becomes an amalgam of angular curves and Bacon-esque distortions around her hands and arms, her facial structure delineated by lines of ivory and black.
In Madonna and Child, de Maistre reworks the opulent interior into a space of his own imagining, yet one that is still recognisable from both the Portrait of Mrs. Florence Bevan and Woman in a Chair. The figure is again seated on the patterned yellow chair, but this time transformed from human to divine by the Christ child on her lap. The interplay of the two figures allows de Maistre to establish a complex arrangement within the centre of the canvas; triangles of black accent form a v-shape around intricately placed blocks of taupe, lilac and grey. Stylistically this unifies the two bodies, but they ultimately remain discrete: their limbs recognisable through exquisitely subtle detailing of fine black lines, enlivened by a bordering of white.
In a closely related Madonna and Child (Carrick Hill Collection, South Australia), the infant Christ is again placed onto the lap of the now-Madonna figure in the same setting. The continued appeal of both the subject matter and style of the painting to the artist is made plain by his continued return to the idea over a period of ten years.
The artist's style has been described as being "more concerned with the decorative elements of shape and colour, a style de Maistre was to perfect and make his own" (Ibid, p.21). De Maistre frequently reworked his subjects, particularly portraits, from their first relatively realistic representations to increasingly abstracted and fragmented images. In so doing, he "was not attempting to use analytic cubist techniques in what would have been an imitatory way, he was using the reduction and simplification of form to depict more about the inner being of his sitter." (Ibid, p.32)