Vanessa Bell the forgotten painter of the Bloomsbury set at Dulwich Picture Gallery

By Catrina Wilson | 18 July 2016

Vanessa Bell at Dulwich Picture Gallery considers an often forgotten artist who pioneered a new, modern vision in British art

A sepia photograph of a woman in a large hat and a dress covered with a shawl.
Vanessa Bell in 1911© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Eclipsed by her sister, the renowned writer Virginia Woolf, and sometimes seen as a muse and confidante to her lovers, friends and fellow artists of the Bloomsbury set Vanessa Bell's (1879-1961) reputation as an artist has been overshadowed by the complexity of her times.

But in February 2017 Dulwich Picture Gallery will begin the rehabilitation by presenting her first major solo exhibition, focusing on her period of experimentation in the 1910s, her pioneering work in the genres of portraiture, still life and landscape and her fluid movement between the fine and applied arts.

A painting of a woman with dark hair and no face. She is slumped in a chair and is knitting.
NPG 5933, Virginia Woolf, by Vanessa Bell (née Stephen), oil on board© National Portrait Gallery, London
As well as an artist, Bell was an innovative homemaker and bohemian mother, who broke free of the repressive Victorian standards in which she was raised and the exhibition will seek to show how this British modernist painter, widely acclaimed as a central figure of the Bloomsbury Group, stands on her own as a pivotal player in 20th century British art.

Old painting of a woman with brown hair and an open necked dress.
Vanessa Bell 1879–1961, Self –Portrait, ca. 1915, Oil on canvas laid on panel, 63.8 x 45.9 cm, Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund.© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Bell’s artistic development was rich and wide-ranging. She studied under a varied array of teachers, including Arthur Cope, Henry Tonks and John Singer Sargent. She attended classes at both the Royal Academy and the Slade School and received emboldening encouragement from the influential painter, Walter Sickert.

A painting of a faceless, naked woman with two large red poppies above her.
Vanessa Bell, Nude with Poppies, 1916, oil on canvas, board: 23.4 x 42.24 cm, Swindon Museum and Art Gallery© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
One of the first artists in Britain to experiment with abstraction, in 1914 she returned to figuration, but incorporated her strengthened understanding of composition and colour into her later work, which featured daring new ways of seeing, and picturing the female subject.

A colourful room with three woman all facing away from each other. There is a vase of flowers on a table in the middle of the room.
Vanessa Bell, The Other Room, late 1930s, 161 x 174 cm, Private Collection© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Pioneering a new, modern vision in British art, in which meaning and emotion were conveyed through the arrangement of shapes, colour and line bell's work into the 1920s captured and conveyed the sensations and emotions of human experience.

Semi abstract repeat pattern of yellow, green and blue motifs.
Vanessa Bell 1879–1961,Design for Omega Workshops Fabric, 1913, Watercolor, gouache, and graphite, Sheet: 66.1 × 53.3 cm, Image: 53.3 × 40.7 cm, Image: 2.7 × 25.4 cm. Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
The exhibition will include two of Bell’s remarkable self-portraits, which demonstrate her sense of herself as an artistic force, even in her final years. Focus will also be given to her experimentation within the decorative arts, specifically her time with the Omega Workshop, with a display of fabric, furniture and ceramic designs.

The final room will explore Bell’s pioneering evocation of the female subject, highlighting the strength of her vision of women. Landmark works such as Bathers in a Landscape screen (1913, Victoria and Albert Museum) and Studland Beach (c.1912, Tate) will be presented with related works, allowing for a deeper understanding of her approach to painting.

Women and children gathered at a beach.
Studland Beach, c.1912, Vanessa Bell (1879-1961), Tate: Purchased 1976© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
Approximately 100 oil paintings as well as ceramics, fabrics, works on paper, photographs and related archival material will deliver Bell in full force, boldly experimenting with abstraction, colour and form while remaining true to her own distinctive way of seeing the world.

Large haystack in the middle of farmland.
Vanessa Bell, Landscape with Haystack, Asheham, 19 12, oil on canvas, board: 60.32 x 65.72 cm, Smith College Museum of Art, Northampton, Massachusetts. Purchased with the gift of Anne Holden Kieckhefer class of 1952, in honour of Ruth Chandler Holden, class of 1926© The Estate of Vanessa Bell, courtesy of Henrietta Garnett
The exhibition will seek to present Bell for fresh consideration on her own - beyond the egos of Bloomsbury charting her move from the refined Impressionism of her early training to a more radical, experimental style stimulated by her many visits to Paris and by the post-Impressionist exhibitions held in London in 1910 and 1912.

The exhibition will run from February 8 - June 4 2017. Ticket prices: £14 Adult,  £13 Senior Citizens, £7 Unemployed, disabled, students and Free: Children, Friends. For more information visit Dulwich Picture Gallery.

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