"My address book was filled with the names of models, and I kept a succession of those in constant action. One of those, at least, arrived as the perfect model for the mitier of oil painting. That was Rita, a quiet, reticent girl who seldom spoke, but who secreted within her all those emotional intensities from which any variation on the feminine image may be extracted" (N Lindsay, My Mask, For what little I know of the Man Behind it - An Autobiography, Sydney, 1970)
This portrait of Norman Lindsay's favourite model Rita Lee, was painted at his 12 Bridge Street Studio in Sydney. Lindsay moved into this studio in 1935, using the move to the city as a time to throw himself into mastering oil painting techniques, a medium he had all but ignored, preferring the use of watercolour, pencil and printmaking. Bridge Street in Sydney would have been alive with artistic activities at this time, with many artists having their studios located at this end of Sydney, Macquarie Galleries being around the corner in Bligh Street and Lindsay's exhibiting gallery at that time, The Macleod Gallery located in George Street.
At the time Lindsay was painting portraits of his friends and family - the poets Douglas Stewart and Robert Fitzgerald, his daughter Jane and Stewart's wife, Margaret (see: D. Stewart Norman Lindsay A Personal Memoir, Melbourne, 1975). Even though Lindsay's wife, Rose, felt Norman was not a portrait painter, it did not deter the artist taking up the challenge with his typical enthusiasm.
The Seventies, is one from a series Lindsay embarked upon, also known as the 'costume portraits'. To assist him in correct advice on fashion, Lindsay wrote to his brother Robert who resided in Creswick in England. Robert had been a designer and milliner in London and was able to supply to Norman, details of fashions since the 1850s.
Lindsay had costumes made in quality materials, using his rationing coupons to purchase fabric from the Sydney store, Hendersons. He believed painting cheap materials wasn't worth the effort and went to great lengths to ensure the authenticity of each of the dresses that were made for the paintings. The costume in The Seventies shows the tight-waist and frilled bodice typical of the era. The heavily trimmed hat sits tilted forward. In this work Rita's brunette hair has been hidden beneath a blonde wig.
In this work and the companion portraits, one of which, Rita of the Nineties, is in the Mitchell Library collection, Lindsay paints the exotic and beautiful Rita with grace and style which exemplifies the best of his oil paintings.
Of these two paintings, Norman Lindsay wrote to his daughter Jane: 'Anyway I've got a notion of painting a series of feminine portrait studies in costume which would make an effective relief to all the nude subjects if hung in one show, and I am going to fake up an 1870 costume and try Rita in it. So will you post down my ration book, as I want to buy some material for it." And in the next letter from her father, Norman wrote "The second Rita picture comes so well that I must stay down to finish it, as I can only get Rita in odd hours. But I've gone farther in oils with these two paintings than ever before and begin to feel that I really know what I'm doing in the medium. Doug (Stewart), very pleasingly, stared for nearly a quarter of an hour at the last Rita, uttering very satisfactory sounds the while, which is a tribute I value.. (L Bloomfield (ed.), The World of Norman Lindsay, Sydney, 1995, p. 92)
We are grateful to Helen Glad for providing this catalogue entry