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Vanessa Bell - Biography and Legacy

English Painter

Born: May 30, 1879 - London, United Kingdom
Died: April 7, 1961 - Firle, United Kington

Biography of Vanessa Bell

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

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."

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

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 that 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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

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.

The Legacy of Vanessa Bell

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.

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Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma

Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein

"Vanessa Bell Artist Overview and Analysis". [Internet]. . TheArtStory.org
Content compiled and written by Jessica DiPalma
Edited and revised, with Summary and Accomplishments added by Valerie Hellstein
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First published on 17 Feb 2018. Updated and modified regularly
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