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Artists Vanessa Bell
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Vanessa Bell

English Painter

Movements and Styles: The Bloomsbury Group Artists, Impressionism, Post-Impressionism

Born: May 30, 1879 - London, United Kingdom

Died: April 7, 1961 - Firle, United Kington

Vanessa Bell Timeline

Quotes

"It is clearly possible to use imitation or representation in producing a great work of art, but it can't be the object of a great artist to tell you the facts at the cost of telling you what he feels about them."
Vanessa Bell
"Life apart from human beings was almost completely visual for me."
Vanessa Bell
"One discovered that one was, after all, in love with nature."
Vanessa Bell
"It seems to me always the visual relationship that is important in painting. There is a language simple of form and color that can be as moving as any other and that seems to affect one quite as much as the greatest poetry of words. Of course, the form and color nearly always do represent life and I suppose any allusions may creep in."
Vanessa Bell
"I am absolutely indifferent to anything the world may say about me, my husband and my children. The only people whose opinion can affect one, the working classes luckily have the sense for the most part to realize that they can know nothing of one's private life and do not allow their speculations about what one does to interfere with their judgement as to what one is. The middle and upper classes are not so sensible."
Vanessa Bell

"I believe all painting is worthwhile so long as one honestly expresses one's own ideas."

Vanessa Bell Signature

Synopsis

Vanessa Bell defied the Victorian strictures of her upbringing to forge a life filled with creativity, collaboration, and sexual liberation. A vital founder of the Bloomsbury Group, Bell, along with her novelist sister Virginia Woolf, the critic Roger Fry, and the artist Duncan Grant among others, embraced the avant-garde styles of continental Europe to advance modern art and to break down the barriers between fine and applied arts. Bucking traditional English mores, Bell created a distinctly modern oeuvre that ranged over still lifes, landscapes, interiors, and abstract paintings as well as decorative arts such as textiles, pottery, and furniture. While Bell embraced Fauvist and Cubist styles, making her paintings some of the most radical Britain had yet seen, her insistence on drawing inspiration from her domestic life led later historians and critics to downplay her importance in the development of modern art, an assessment that is now rapidly changing.

Key Ideas

Bell synthesized the techniques and explorations of the Post-Impressionist painters, such as Cézanne, Matisse, and Gauguin, to create modern compositions with bold forms and colors. She simplified human figures to their constituent shapes, flattened pictorial space, and used saturated colors to create patterns of objects and shapes, creating paintings that were some of the most radical in Britain at the time.
The close group of family and friends that Bell cultivated and the untraditional domestic sphere she fostered provided inspiration and subject matter throughout her painting career. In this space abstract textiles, hand fashioned pottery, abstract paintings, and portraits of her loved ones mingled to create a new, strikingly modern way of living.
While innovative in the development of abstract painting, Bell wandered among various types of subject matter and blurred the boundaries between fine and decorative arts. While perhaps not a strict modernist, her attitude spoke to an anti-authoritarian stance that defied the constraints and limitations of what was expected of a modern painter.

Most Important Art

Vanessa Bell Famous Art

Landscape with Haystack, Asheham (1912)

While Bell pays homage to Monet in her choice of subject matter - a large haystack dominates the landscape - she emulates Cézanne in her compositional structure and paint handling. Instead of Monet's light-dappled haystack, Bell uses muted browns and greens in flat swaths to construct the sculptural pile of hay and the rest of the landscape. The visible strokes of the grey sky as well as the patch of grass in the near foreground have much in common with Cézanne's method of painting. Having spent time in Paris as well as seeing Roger Fry's groundbreaking Post-Impressionist show in 1910, Bell synthesized the Post-Impressionist style to create a unique, modern approach to landscape painting that didn't exist in England.

The setting, Asheham, was where her sister Virginia Woolf and her brother-in-law Leonard Woolf found a country house shortly after they married in 1912. Bell painted the house in the background, reinforcing her personal connection to the landscape. While Bell renders a real place, her focus is on the structural design of the painting, how patches of color fit together to create a strong image, and echoes Fry's formal assessments that design was an essential aspect of modern painting.
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Vanessa Bell Artworks in Focus:

Biography

Childhood and Education

The complicated family dynamic into which Vanessa Stephen was born would foreshadow the complex relationships she would have throughout her life. The eldest child born to author Sir Leslie Stephen and Julia Duckworth, her three siblings included one sister who would become the famed author Virginia Woolf. She also had a half-sister (her mother's from her first marriage) and two half-brothers (her father's sons), who Bell accused many years later of molesting her.

Early Training

Photograph of a young Vanessa Bell taken by her step-sister Stella Duckworth.
Photograph of a young Vanessa Bell taken by her step-sister Stella Duckworth.

While her father could be a demanding and controlling figure, he encouraged his children's academic and creative pursuits. Showing an interest in art at an early age, Bell received lessons at home before enrolling in an art school run by Arthur Cope in 1896 and later the prestigious Royal Academy in 1901, where she studied painting with John Singer Sargent, who interestingly, disliked her heavy use of gray. It was also during this time, through her brother Thoby, that she met her future husband Clive Bell in 1902.

Tragedy and loss impacted the progression of Bell's artistic training. After her mother's death in 1895 and her half-sister's death two years later, her father looked to her to care for him, her siblings, and to run the household, forcing her to limit the time she could devote to her studies. She was sarcastically nicknamed "the Saint" by her sister Virginia, establishing a slight antagonism between the two that would continue throughout their close relationship. Later when her father developed cancer, she was forced to reduce her time at the Royal Academy even further.

Her father's death in February 1904 brought physical and mental liberation for Bell, who while not permitted to reenroll in the Royal Academy, began to travel in Europe to study art. She and her siblings also moved from the family home to a house in the fashionable London neighborhood of Bloomsbury. Of this newfound freedom Bell stated, "It was exhilarating to have left the house in which had been so much gloom and depression, to have come to these white walls, large windows opening on to trees and lawns, to have one's own room, be master of one's own time." It was here that family and intellectual and artistic friends, including Clive Bell, began a series of Thursday evening gatherings that fueled her creative pursuits and formed the foundation for what would be termed the "Bloomsbury Group."

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Vanessa Bell Biography Continues

At this time, Bell's work was first exhibited, and she helped form the Friday Club in 1905, with the goal of supporting public exhibitions of the group's work. Her forthrightness and aggressive promotion of the club helped to establish her lifelong reputation for defying social conventions and mores of the period. Her refusal to tie herself down in a marriage led her to resist Clive Bell's first two marriage proposals before accepting and marrying him in 1907, shortly after the death of her brother Thoby.

Mature Period

Vanessa Bell with her daughter Angelica Bell
Vanessa Bell with her daughter Angelica Bell

Although she took her husband's name, Vanessa Bell's marriage was far from conventional. Both she and her husband had multiple lovers throughout their union. Her first included a longtime relationship with critic Roger Fry, whose show on Post-Impressionism (and coining of the term itself) helped to shape the direction of her work, and the second was a relationship with homosexual artist Duncan Grant. Grant would live with her for more than forty years, often alongside some of his male lovers, which included Bell's brother Adrian. The always witty American Dorothy Parker remarked the the group that "lived in squares, painted in circles, and loved in triangles." Bell would have two sons, Julian and Quentin, with Clive Bell, and she would later have a daughter Angelica with Grant whom Clive, to avoid scandal, claimed as his own. Angelica was not told Grant was her father until she was seventeen years old.

Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in 1911.
Virginia Woolf and Vanessa Bell in 1911.

Unlike many female artists of the period, Bell was able to balance the demands of motherhood (which she liked) with that of her career and continued to be active as a professional artist throughout her life. Along with Fry and Grant, Bell founded the Omega Workshops in 1913. The group attempted to produce commercial products while focusing on paintings, ceramics, fabrics, furniture, and stained-glass designs that built on the Post-Impressionist style. They also hosted exhibitions of participating artists' work. Bell experimented with complete abstraction in 1914 and into 1915, but largely her work always contained a figurative element. While a vehicle to highlight Bell's art, Omega also demonstrated how her work was often intricately fueled by the support of like-minded artists.

Exterior of Charleston house
Exterior of Charleston house

Bell's art thrived when she and her unconventional family relocated in 1916 to the Sussex countryside to a farmhouse called Charleston. The move was precipitated by the need for Grant, along with his partner David "Bunny" Garnett, to find employment to avoid prison as conscientious observers during World War I. She and Clive Bell never formally divorced or separated, and he would often visit Charleston for long stretches of time. In another example of her complicated personal relationships, Bunny would years later marry Bell and Grant's daughter despite a more than twenty-year age difference and his having once been in love with her father.

Interior of Charleston house
Interior of Charleston house

Charleston became a canvas for her art as Bell made many design changes to the home including painting works on walls and furniture and artistically designing the gardens. It was here that she, often working alongside Grant, would paint the subjects for which she was best known: landscapes, portraits, and still lifes.

After the war, Bell traveled often and her paintings were influenced by the places she visited and the people she met. She attended the salons at Gertrude Stein's Paris home and visited the studios of Matisse and Picasso. While her own profile as an artist grew, her reputation was always overshadowed by Grant's. While she generally appeared fine with the arrangement and herself played an active role in trying to elevate Grant's work, she did once strongly object to a journalist describing her as "Mrs. Duncan Grant."

Late Period

While artistically productive, the last decades of Bell's career were filled with many tragedies, which began with Roger Fry's death in 1934. She subsequently suffered a nervous breakdown, and after her eldest son Julian, to whom she was extremely close, died in 1937 during the Spanish Civil War, she took a long time to recover. Four years later in 1941 her sister, Virginia Woolf, committed suicide.

View of paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in interior of Berwick Church in Sussex, England.
View of paintings by Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant in interior of Berwick Church in Sussex, England.

Despite the deep losses, her art provided an outlet and a refuge for Bell. She received an important commission to decorate the RMS Queen Mary ship in 1936. The original design was found inappropriate for the Catholic chapel room, and to appease all parties, Bell was assigned a new room, which was to be used for private dining. Also, in 1939 she was commissioned along with Grant and her son and daughter, to create a painting for Berwick Church in Sussex, a surprising commission since Bell had long been vocal in her distrust of and lack of interest in religion.

Vanessa Bell, her granddaughter Virginia, and Duncan Grant at Charleston house
Vanessa Bell, her granddaughter Virginia, and Duncan Grant at Charleston house

In the last years of her life, the somewhat socially reserved Bell (except with those in her own circle of acquaintances), withdrew further from society. She stayed mainly at Charleston spending time with Grant, her children, and grandchildren; and her home continued to provide inspiration for her work.

In April 1961, Bell developed bronchitis from which she would not recover. She died shortly after of heart failure and was buried in the cemetery near Charleston.


Legacy

In her unique approach to modernism, Vanessa Bell was in many ways a trailblazer. She was one of the first women in England to experiment with abstraction and her vision was behind the forming of leading early-20th-century art groups and programs.

The legacy of her work continues to inspire artists in multiple fields. Comparisons have been made between her composition and color use and the style of contemporary artist David Hockney. Recently, musician Patti Smith created a set of photographs from a visit to Charleston, incorporating Bell's designs. In addition, the Burberry fashion house created a line of bags inspired by Bell's textiles and paintings.

Influences and Connections

Influences on Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Influenced by Artist
Artists, Friends, Movements
Vanessa Bell
Interactive chart with Vanessa Bell's main influences, and the people and ideas that the artist influenced in turn.
View Influences Chart

Artists

Paul CézannePaul Cézanne
Henri MatisseHenri Matisse
Claude MonetClaude Monet
Pablo PicassoPablo Picasso
Georges SeuratGeorges Seurat

Personal Contacts

Clive BellClive Bell
Roger FryRoger Fry
Duncan GrantDuncan Grant
Gertrude SteinGertrude Stein
Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf

Movements

Abstract ArtAbstract Art
ImpressionismImpressionism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism

Influences on Artist
Vanessa Bell
Vanessa Bell
Years Worked: 1904 - 1961
Influenced by Artist

Artists

Frederick Etchells
Jessie Etchells
Nina Hamnett
David HockneyDavid Hockney
Walter SickertWalter Sickert

Personal Contacts

Clive BellClive Bell
Roger FryRoger Fry
Gertrude SteinGertrude Stein
Lytton Strachey
Virginia WoolfVirginia Woolf

Movements

Abstract ArtAbstract Art
ImpressionismImpressionism
Post-ImpressionismPost-Impressionism

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Cite this page

Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors

" Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and published by The Art Story Contributors
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Useful Resources on Vanessa Bell

Videos

Books

Websites

Articles

More

The books and articles below constitute a bibliography of the sources used in the writing of this page. These also suggest some accessible resources for further research, especially ones that can be found and purchased via the internet.

biography

Vanessa Bell Recomended resource

By Frances Spalding

written by artist

Selected Letters of Vanessa Bell Recomended resource

By Regina Marler

More Interesting Books about Vanessa Bell
Charleston: The Bloomsbury Home of Art and Ideas Recomended resource

Official website of Charleston house.

Art Happens: Charleston - The world's only complete Bloomsbury interior Recomended resource

This video was created by ArtFundUK to inspire people to contribute to conservation efforts at Charleston to preserve the interior paintings created by Vanessa Bell. Dr. Darren Clarke, Head of Curatorial Services for The Charleston Trust provides a look at the house and the history of the artwork and interior paintings created by Bell.

Reminiscing about Bloomsbury [1]

This video features a recording of Vanessa Bell discussing a childhood conversation with her sister author Virginia Woolf about which parent each liked best, their mother or father.

Vanessa Bell | Design and Experimentation | Dulwich Picture Gallery Recomended resource

Sackler Director and exhibition co-curator Ian Dejardin discusses Vanessa Bell's abstract paintings in relation to the exhibition Vanessa Bell 1879 - 1961 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from February 8 through June 4, 2017.

Vanessa Bell | Pictures of Women | Dulwich Picture Gallery Recomended resource

Co-curators Ian Dejardin and Sarah Milroy discuss Vanessa Bell's paintings of women she created throughout her career in relation to the exhibition Vanessa Bell 1879 - 1961 at the Dulwich Picture Gallery from February 8 through June 4, 2017.

More Interesting Videos with Vanessa Bell

in pop culture

Art in Fashion: Burberry's Bloomsbury Girls

Harper's Bazaar UK, June 17, 2014

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