Cassis Quarry Man & Wife c. 1921

Black chalk
32 x 45 cm
Signed Frances Hodgkins
Estate of Karl Hagedorn RBA
Frances Hodgkins People, NZ Portrait Gallery, December 2017 – Feb 2018
Frances Hodgkins: European Journeys, Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tāmaki, May – September 2019 Dunedin Public Art Gallery, October 2019 – January 2020, The Christchurch Art Gallery Te Puna o Waiwhetū, February – May 2020

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From Frances Hodgkins to Rachel Hodgkins, 21 Dec 1920, Cassis – Nr. Marseilles

‘This place is off the beaten track, not very far from Marseilles, on the coast, much frequented by artists on account of the landscape. The little town is not up to much & the people are not very attractive. Winston Churchill, his wife & suite have been here lately, he for a fortnight’s painting … It is a pity I missed him’.

After leaving New Zealand in 1901, the first group of monochromatic works that appear in Hodgkins’ oeuvre are related to Cassis, where she spent six weeks during the winter of 1920-21. Hodgkins’ drawings from this period were completed in black chalk and were of uniform size. Two examples of her chalk drawings are currently held in public galleries; Cassis c.1921 (Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Ta¯ maki) and Landscape in the South of France (Whitworth Art Gallery, University of Manchester).

Hodgkins left England for France in 1920. On her arrival, she immersed herself in the local culture, enjoying the fine French food and wine. After a week of relaxation she moved south to the small town of Cassis in the hope of meeting up with close friends Cedric Morris and Lett Haines. Arriving in the fishing port, Hodgkins discovered that they had already departed, but the magnificent amphitheatre created by the hills surrounding Cassis drew her in, and she decided to stay.

Intending to produce a set of black-and-white drawings for exhibition and possible reproduction, Hodgkins settled upon the local landscape and the colourful characters for subject-matter, obviously relishing the strong- featured physiognomies around her and the hidden depths of her medium. She enjoyed daily walks over the rugged hills of the region and sketched constantly as she went. This, Hodgkins realised, was Cézanne country – a challenge that she met in a series of black chalk drawings, which are notable for their boldness and strength of design – in what was for her, a new medium.

Hodgkins’ chalk works express her assuredness in her own skill and reveal an element of experimentation in terms of both subject matter and form. She intended her chalk drawings to not be just picturesque examples of the local landscape and people, but to be autonomous artworks that would also serve as inspiration for larger paintings. They were undoubtedly popular and the present drawing, Cassis Quarryman and Wife, bears a strikingly close resemblance to her later work, Spanish Husband and Wife c.1925.

The double portrait was to become a distinctive motif in Hodgkins’ oeuvre from the 1920s; the present work is perhaps its earliest iteration. Cassis Quarryman and Wife is executed with a paucity of line that underscores her masterful draughtsmanship. In the present work Hodgkins utilises the chequered patterning of the fabric to draw attention to the female figure and to provide a central anchor for the composition. The use of bold patches of shading works to accentuate the landscape of the faces while her ability to indicate spatial recession by hinting at the layering of the couple is testament to her skill and understanding of the fundamentals of the drawing practice.

Though she was pleased with the work, the project she had hoped for did not eventuate, and these drawings do not seem to have been exhibited ever as a group of works. Hodgkins continued in this vein as they moved further eastward to Marseilles and Martigues, accumulating a substantial body of drawings.