Siggins on Teague

In this reflection, Phillip Siggins, one of CAM’s stalwart guides, writes about Violet Teague’s (1872–1951) gritty Portrait of a Pioneer, 1917. This was an important and prescient gift of the artist in 1940. Castlemaine women had a pioneering role in establishing CAM, and the museum’s first director, Beth Sinclair (appointed in 1962), was the first female director of any public gallery in Australia.

Violet Teague, Portrait of a Pioneer, 1917. Oil on canvas, Castlemaine Art Museum. Gift of the artist, 1940.

Siggins on Teague

I’m confident that Violet Teague was beguiled by this sitter.

This portrait of an elderly woman was painted in 1917, towards the end of the First World War. Looking at it, it’s hard to believe that the roaring twenties were just around the corner, that the flapper was about to burst onto the scene.

Born in the 1870s, Violet Teague was a mature artist well known for her portraiture and printmaking. Following Federation, people were feeling some nostalgia for the days of pioneering—the Australian Impressionists had already memorialised the era. McCubbin’s great triptych of pioneer settlement had especially seized the national imagination. The act of pioneering the land was seen as character-forming, and as a righteous act in the name of God, King and country. To transplant oneself, one’s family, one’s culture and civilisation to regions remote from England required physical strength and emotional resilience, moral and spiritual certainty, and imagination. In Australia, the Anzac legend was born, the Bulletin celebrated the emerging Australian character, painters captured the light and vastness of the landscape. The pioneer played her part in this formation of a national identity. Part of the achievement of Portrait of a Pioneer is that it enlarges the vocabulary of pioneering, giving us a resonant image beyond the masculine stereotypes that were emerging.

The war agains Australia's First Nation's people was conveniently forgotten.

The Work
She’s in black and is most likely a widow—her elaborate Tudor-style bonnet has a “widow’s peak”. But being in black didn’t necessarily imply grief. It was fashionable for mature women from the 1860s onwards to copy Queen Victoria’s style, the black she adopted at the death of Albert the Good.

So, given the title, one expects gravitas, sombre Victorian rectitude and deep seriousness. Instead Violet Teague gives us someone quite different—a person full of vitality. She looks out of the frame with a slightly quizzical air—lips compressed—will she break into a smile?—as if she is looking at the new age and not quite believing in its reality.

The towering bonnet is mad—but necessary. Without it, the composition would be out of whack, and the slightly buccaneering spirit that it conveys would be lost. This handsome woman is full of health and purpose (luminous skin, clear eyes) and has prospered through her pioneering efforts. Black was expensive, as would have been the gold clasp that holds her cloak. She is represented as a visitor from another age—a welcome one, come in from the outside in her heavy garb, probably full of resonant stories of the early days and of difficulties faced and overcome.

Violet Teague gave this painting to the gallery in 1940 as the Second World War was starting. Sir John Longstaff recommended its acquisition. The pioneer portrayed would have brought back memories of grandmothers lost or vanishing. Violet Teague made church memorials for those who died, most famously at Kinglake, where the shepherds in the nativity are Diggers, and she died in the 1950s. Portrait of a Pioneer deserves to be ranked as a great Australian painting.

Phillip Siggins
May 2020

Phillip Siggins

One of CAMs most enthusiastic and skilled guides, Phillip Siggins happily retired to Castlemaine after a long career in academia and university administration. Siggins contributes literary reviews on a regular basis to various publications, such as the Griffith Review.

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