Vanessa Bell by Cinzia Eich

Vanessa Bell (1879-1961) was an English artist, one of the few women painters of the beginning of the twentieth century. Stylistically, she was influenced by the major avant-garde of the period, but, while the latter often used the "modernist" style to denigrate the female body, she adopted it to give psychological depth to women. She explored their sexuality from their own perspectives, thus transforming them in real subjects of action rather than objects for the (male) gaze. Her paintings do not limit to this, but they denounce the exclusion and discrimination that women had to face in the artistic and intellectual circles of the time as well.

Vanessa Stephen Bell was born in London to a well off family. In a time in which most women were not educated, her class permitted her to study art both in a scholastic environment and by experiencing different European cultures. As scholar Frances Spalding reports, between 1896 and 1901 she took art lessons from Sir Arthur Cope in London, and between 1901 and 1904 she attended the Royal Academy under John Singer Sargent (18-34). Bell traveled widely throughout her life. Among the countries she visited, she gained particular inspiration from Italy and France. In Italy, she was able to view the works of the great masters of the past. By frequently visiting Paris, the capital of modern art, she learned about and was influenced by the unprecedented artistic developments brought about by the major avant-garde of the time.

While Bell assimilated stylistic elements from different movements, she never associated with a particular one. Yet, Spaldingís biography of this artists reveals that, throughout her life, she participated in different artistic circles. She organized "The Friday Club" (1905-1914) , a group of artists who gathered to exchange ideas and exhibit their works together throughout London. Furthermore, she contributed to Roger Fryís Omega Workshops (1913-1919). Later on in her life, in 1939, she became a member of Mural Painters in London. Most importantly, she associated with the "Bloomsbury" group, an intellectual circle of people that gathered around London and Charleston. The most known people of the group were Virginia Woolf, who was Vanessaís younger sister, Clive Bell, who married Vanessa in 1907, the critic and artist Roger Fry, and the painter Duncan Grant.

The artistís oeuvre is complex. Bell experimented with different techniques and mediums. While working at Omega Workshops, she decorated and designed furniture, fabrics and everyday objects.




Cover for The Common Reader (1925) by V. Bell

Independently, she created many woodcuts and illustrated her sisterís books. She is particularly well-known for her dust-jackets of Virginia Woolfís texts for the Hogarth Press. The cover for The Common Reader (1925) is one example. Her paintings on canvas are mostly figurative, but her artistic career saw a brief period of abstraction around 1911-14. Her favorite subjects were still lives and portraits, especially of women. She also created several landscapes and views of domestic life.

Her fascination with flowers would never cease. Poppies and Hollyhocks (1940) is one of her mature pieces.   Poppies and Hollyhocks (1940)



Studland Beach (1912) is probably her most famous and innovative piece.
  Studland Beach (1912) In general, all of her works show her passion for color. Furthermore, they all have in common similar compositional devices. The majority of her pieces show strong emphasis on closed curvilinear forms which often evoke organic shapes. Most of her subjects are effectively simplified to their essential components. Her works on canvas show an Impressionist influence in the manipulation of light effects and a Cezannesque brushstroke. Even though Bellís semiabstract paintings and designs are more interesting stylistically for their innovative quality, some of the artistís figurative works, in particular those depicting women, are captivating for their content. While Bell embraced the revolutionary character of contemporary avant-garde in many respects, she criticized some of the conservative attitudes that they perpetuated.


The avant-garde of the beginning of the twentieth century created a real paradigm shift. Modern art was born. One of the basic characteristics of modern art is the partial or total elimination of reliance on nature, senses and realistic depictions in favor of an emotional or intellectual response to the subject. Unfortunately, instead of using this freedom to explore women in a fuller way, many artists continued to reduce their female subjects to their biological features and to passive objects. Without denying their immense contribution to their field, many feminist writers have objected to the absolute exaltation of many pioneers of modern art, for example Picasso, Gauguin or Matisse. Their images of prostitutes, "primitive" and destructive women have become canons although they vilify the female body and in general women.   Bellís paintings show how modernism can be used to give dignity to the representation of women in art. Unfortunately, research on Bell is sparse. She is often studied only in conjunction with the other two major artists of the Bloomsbury group, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry, or with Virginia Woolf. As with so many women painters, she is discussed in terms of her male relations and/or family ties. Her art is often dismissed as a "copy", usually of Grant. Even if some of the works of Bell and Grant are stylistically similar, and even though Bell embraced stylistic devices of other contemporary artists, her work is truly different. This is particularly evident when analyzing one of her early works, The Tub (1917), and comparing it with Grantís homologous 1912 painting. As scholar Richard Shone reports, she owned it (150). The fact that she created a work with the same subject and title should be indicative of her reaction to Grantís version in particular and to depictions of women overall.


THE TUB by by Vanessa Bell
THE TUB by Duncan Grant


In his version of The Tub, Grant adopted elements from Picassoís "African" style, Matisseís colors, energetic brushwork and flattening of the space; Bell, instead, chose surrealistic moods, a cubist distortion of pictorial planes and Cezanne-like brushstrokes. It is not the form that makes the two works different. It is the content. Grant chose to use a Fauvist black outline to emphasize the breasts of his subject, divaricated her deformed legs and stressed the void between with a black triangular shape that recalls her genitals. If Grantís woman lifts her arms to show an upright breast, Bellís figure timidly covers it and shamefully positions herself in the far right of the picture. Grantís bather is emptied of any emotion, while Bellís has a contemplative, "real" expression, a psychological presence. If Grant, as so many of his male contemporary artists, used the female body as the canvas on which stylistic experiments are tried out, Bell experimented while giving dignity to the female nude. She explored the sexuality of her subject, the way this woman reacts to her own nudity, and the fact that she is being looked at by spectators. Grant, on the other hand, compressed the space and explored only his sexual fantasies, anxieties, etc., in respect to this "fetishist" object.  

Researches on Bellís The Tub are characterized by gender biases. For example, Frances Spalding values it for its psychological depth, but, at same time, she starts her essay by recounting Bellís private life (how many children she had and whom she was married to) before speaking of her as an artist (15-20). Even worse, art historians Bridget Elliot and Jo-Ann Wallace, who condemn the condition of women painters in modernism and Bell in particular, dismiss The Tub as a "domestic genre painting" (76-77). Why is it not a psychological portrait, or a nude? As typical, women paint "feminine" subjects, and men just paint.

As Bell must have felt the burden of depicting female nudes that would automatically be compared with the canons male artists established, she had to face the problem of being a woman artist. Although she did participate in artistic circles, the male-dominated atmosphere of the artistic environment of her time was a problem. As Elliot and Wallace point out, she expressed her insecurity and low self-esteem in both her writing and painting (76-89). These scholars notice that Bell always portrayed male artists with references to their careers, for example in front of the easel, or in their library. Yet, when facing the problem of painting herself, her sister or other working women, she almost always avoided references to their professions.


Interestingly, when she depicted two artists of different sex in Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting (1912), she positioned the woman sitting on the floor and the man actively painting standing (76). This work is a particularly effective critique of gender discriminations in artistic spheres exactly because of its modern style, which permitted Bell to free herself from "nature". As Bell voided her characters of a face and eliminated any superfluous detail recalling a specific place, she universalized them. She used the same stylistic freedom with which her contemporary male artists denigrated women to denounce their condition.
Frederick and Jessie Etchells Painting (1912), Vanessa Bell


As a woman, Vanessa Bell represents a wonderful subject of research and a model. She is a significant artist in many respects. Although this essay focuses only on a few aspects of her art, and only on a few pieces, it is not meant to deny other important connotations of her work. It rather suggests that some of Bellís works are particularly important both artistically and as social documents. Although it is only speculative to assert that this artist intentionally criticized her society, her pieces have a powerful voice. As the representation of women has always been a favorite subject throughout the history of Western art, and women have often been excluded from the art scene, it is stimulating to see how the few female artists of the past depicted themselves.


Works Cited

Bell, Vanessa. The Common Reader. Dust-cover for Virginia Woolfís book in the Hogarth Press.
Vanessa Bell e Virginia Woolf: Disegnare la Vita
. Eds. Sibylle Pieyre de Mandiargues. Ferrara: Civiche Gallerie díArte, 1996. 119.
---. Frederick and Jessie Etchells Panting. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Feb. 2002 <>
---. Poppies and Hollyhocks. Anthony díOffay Gallery, London. Vanessa Bell. By Frances Spalding. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983
---. Studland Beach. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Apr. 2002 <>
---. The Tub. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Feb. 2002 <http://www.>
Elliot, Bridget, and Jo-Ann Wallace. Women Artists and Writers: Modernist (Im)positionings. New York: Routledge, 1994
Grant, Duncan. The Tub. Tate Gallery, London. 8 Feb. 2001. 10 Feb. 2002 <>
Shone, Richard. The Art of Bloomsbury: Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant. Princeton: Princeton UP, 1999
--. "Vanessa Bell Pittrice." Trans. Federica Manfredini. Vanessa Bell e Virginia Woolf: Disegnare la Vita. Eds. Sibylle Pieyre de Mandiargues. Ferrara: Civiche Gallerie díArte, 1996. 15-20
palding, Frances. Vanessa Bell. London: Weidenfeld and Nicolson, 1983