The rise of atmospheric painter Clarice Beckett


Working en plein air on a small scale, the modernist, tonalist painter Clarice Beckett (1887– 1935) possessed a remarkable ability to capture not only the likeness of a place, but also how it felt to be there. Looking at her paintings, one can almost feel the misty rain clinging to the suburban streets of Melbourne—where she lived and worked—and smell the fresh, salty air billowing in from Port Phillip Bay.

Curated for Geelong Gallery, Atmosphere covers Beckett’s work from 1919 to the early 1930s and focuses on locations around Victoria, with natural phenomena a key subject. “Compared to the grand landscape narratives being painted by her tutor Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917), Beckett focused on everyday locales,” says Atmosphere co-curator Lisa Sullivan. “They were places she knew and this connection to place comes through in the way she painted—there was a familiarity and lightness of touch that enabled her to respond to fleeting environmental conditions like rain, sunlight and mist.”

Central to the exhibition is a series of paintings Beckett completed during a six-month stay at Naringal, a sheep station in rural Victoria. Vastly different from the coastal environments she was accustomed to, the farmhouse at Naringal and its surrounding landscape allowed Beckett to experiment with new tones and textures.

“Beckett had an economy of means in the way she blurred tones together,” Sullivan explains. “She really transformed the way we see the Australian landscape by conveying so much about a landscape in a very direct way.

“We often apply that thinking to the early Australian Impressionists working in the 1880s, but I think of artists like Beckett, Grace Cossington Smith, Godfrey Miller, Fred Williams, Rosalie Gascoigne and Emily Kame Kngwarreye—those artists have all shaped how I see the Australian landscape in an enduring and long-standing way.

Clarice Beckett
Geelong Gallery
1 April—9 July

This article was originally published in the March/April 2023 print edition of Art Guide Australia.

Preview Words by Briony Downes