Born: Sydney, New South Wales, Australia 17 Nov 1831
Died: Rome, Italy 15 Apr 1867
Studying painting in Europe in the mid 19th century, Adelaide Ironside has the distinction of being the first Australian-born artist known to have trained overseas. She was also the first artist to have a solo exhibition at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, in 1877, ten years after her death, aged just 35, in Italy.
Born in 1831 and raised in Sydney by her mother, Martha Ironside (nee Redman), Adelaide Ironside showed artistic and literary ability from a young age and had her patriotic poetry published in the local press. She was mentored by a prominent Presbyterian minister and politician, John Dunmore Lang, and shared his republican tendencies and support for Australia – then still a group of separate British colonies – to forge a national identity.
Ambitious and aspiring to study history painting (then considered the highest category of art), Ironside moved to Rome in 1856 with her mother, and began to train for up to 18 hours a day. She hoped to master her craft and return to Australia as a successful artist, with ambitions to fresco the walls of Sydney’s public buildings. Her training comprised primarily of copying master works, an accepted form of study of the day.
Perhaps due to the novelty of her being a woman from the far-away colonies, her studio was patronised by prominent visitors, including the Prince of Wales and William Charles Wentworth, one of the leading figures of early colonial New South Wales, who both purchased her work. Ironside was friendly with American sculptor Harriet Hosmer, who also lived in Rome and is known as the first female professional sculptor.
Although a staunch Protestant, Ironside received a private audience with Pope Pius IX in 1861 and obtained his permission to copy works in the papal collections and to view Fra Angelico’s frescoes in the monastery of San Marco in Florence. She also studied fresco painting with monks in Perugia.
Ironside’s tenure in Rome was during the Risorgimento, or unification of Italy, a turbulent time politically and socially. Her republicanism extended to her adopted home, and she modelled the head of Christ in The marriage at Cana of Galilee (1861, reworked 1863) on the Italian patriot Giuseppe Garibaldi.
Now in the Art Gallery of New South Wales collection, this work is the most important painting of her career. It portrays Christ’s first public miracle – the transformation of water into wine during the marriage feast at Cana in Galilee – but also serves as a symbolic representation of Italy’s unification. It was exhibited in the 1862 London International Exhibition in the New South Wales colonial court, alongside the strikingly different Sydney landscapes of Conrad Martens and others – an indication of Ironside’s determination to be regarded as a serious artist in her home country.
Ironside exhibited three other paintings in the Roman court of the exhibition: Art longa, vita brevis (known as The pilgrim of art crowned by the genius of art) and St Agnes, both now lost, and St Catherine, now in the Gallery’s collection. The latter work, her first completed oil painting, shows the strong Italianate influence of her surroundings, with its rich colours and symbolism. Like The marriage at Cana of Galilee, it is demonstrably different to paintings by Ironside’s contemporaries in Australia.
In Sydney, Lang and another NSW politician, James Pemell, made a case for purchasing The marriage at Cana of Galilee by public subscription and placing it into one of the city’s public buildings. Their letters were printed in the Empire newspaper on 19 November 1862 along with one from Ironside herself in which she wrote that prominent British art critic William Stirling had seen and praised the painting, describing it as ‘a very great work, full of every variety of beauty’.
Pemell wrote: ‘I have several times seen Ms Ironside’s exhibition picture (‘Marriage in Cana’), and like it more and more every time … Add to its worth and extreme beauty, subject and finish, the fact that it is by the first Australian artist [sic], and one that is A1, and I am certain I am right in thinking it would be a great pity were it lost to the colony … as no one could see it without being pleased: for the most unlearned will be struck with its brightness and richness, whilst the most clever cannot fail to be satisfied with the exquisite softness and finish. Truly she is a “child of genius” and although she might be better appreciated even in classic Italy … yet she would let it go at considerably less than its proper price to the colony, than it should be buried in the mass of paintings on the Continent or here.’
Despite their efforts, they failed to raise the funds to purchase the work, which greatly disappointed Ironside. She went to Ireland to study with famed artist and critic John Ruskin in Dublin but was frustrated by his simple sketching lessons. Ill-health forced her to return to the warmer climate of Rome.
Ironside suffered poor health for two years – her condition exacerbated by the long hours she had previously spent in the studio – and she painted little before dying of tuberculosis in 1867. Her wish to return to Australia remained unfilled. Ironside’s mother took her body to London, where she raised funds through public subscription to have a book of her daughter’s native Australian flower paintings published; however, the publishers declared bankruptcy before the deal could be finalised. Martha Ironside died before she was able to return Adelaide’s body to Australia and they are buried together in London.
An exhibition of three of Ironside’s works – The marriage at Cana of Galilee, The pilgrim of art crowned by the genius of art and The manifestation of Christ to the Gentiles (also known as The adoration of the Magi, now lost) – was shown in July 1877 at Clark’s New Assembly Hall in Elizabeth Street, the Gallery’s first site.
Of Ironside’s few extant works, the Gallery holds a drawing and a watercolour as well as her only two surviving paintings, while drawings can be found in a small number of public collections.