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Duncan Grant, 1885–1978

At Eleanor: Vanessa Bell

Former Title(s):

Vanessa Bell at Eleanor

Materials & Techniques:
Oil on canvas
29 15/16 x 21 7/8 inches (76 x 55.6 cm)

Signed and dated upper right: "D. Grant | 191[8?]

Credit Line:
Yale Center for British Art, Paul Mellon Fund
Copyright Status:
© Estate of the Artist
Accession Number:
Paintings and Sculpture
Subject Terms:
brushstrokes | couch | green (color) | hands | painter (artist) | portrait | red | woman
Associated Places:
England | United Kingdom | West Sussex | West Wittering
Associated People:
Bell [née Stephen], Vanessa (1879–1961), painter
Not on view
IIIF Manifest:

Relationships between members of the Bloomsbury Group were notoriously fluid, characterized by a disdain for what they regarded as bourgeois notions of fidelity, permanence, or exclusivity. When Duncan Grant painted this portrait of Vanessa Bell they had become partners and were living together at Eleanor, a small house on the West Sussex coast. Bell’s marriage to the critic Clive Bell had recently failed, and she was hoping to start a new relationship with Grant, who had previously been attached to a number of different male members of the group and was then falling for the young writer David Garnett. The stress of the war further strained the atmosphere, although the fatigue in Bell’s face may also be explained by the fact that she fell asleep during sittings.

Gallery label for installation of YCBA collection, 2016
Vanessa Bell found herself falling in love with Duncan Grant steadily throughout 1914. Although he was an avowed and active homosexual, Grant found that he could in some manner return her feelings, and a bond developed which would last for the rest of their lives. In the early spring of 1915 they began living together at Eleanor, a house in West Wittering in Sussex, but there would be complications to the arrangement at the outset. Grant's portrait of Bell comes from a fraught moment in both their lives. At the end of 1914 Grant had formed an ardent relationship with the young writer David Garnett, which would last several years. Grant and Bell rented Eleanor from John and Mary St. John Hutchinson; he was a leading London barrister, and she had become the mistress of Bell's husband Clive. The Bells' marriage had disintegrated shortly after the birth of their second son, Quentin, in 1910, although they were to retain a close "union of friendship" throughout their lives. In May 1915 Vanessa Bell wrote to Roger Fry from Eleanor that "it was rather a difficult situation."1 The strange and disconcerting quality of this portrait, of intimacy and withdrawal, arises from the combination of repose and disquiet in Bell's attitude. The portrait was most likely painted in April, soon after her arrival at Eleanor. Originally the plan was to paint in Henry Tonks's studio in a nearby boathouse, but the unseasonably cold weather had driven them indoors to the dining room of Eleanor. The comfortable chair suggests this domestic setting and not the boathouse. In April Grant fell sick, partly due to the strain of the ménage à trois and to the prolonged absence of Garnett in France. Along with the tense personal relationships at Eleanor, the dreadful effects of World War One were beginning to take their toll. Although Bell tried to shut out the war and refused to read the newspapers, it penetrated deep into their lives. In March the French painter Henri Doucet, a close collaborator of Bloomsbury, was killed in action. In April Rupert Brooke, the poet and Bloomsbury acquaintance, died in the Aegean on his way to Gallipoli. On a more personal level the uneasiness of the times continued. Virginia Woolf suffered another severe mental breakdown in February 1915, which would last until June of that year. From Roger Fry, her lover between 1911 and 1913, Bell received agonizing and abject letters totally unable to accept that their passionate relationship was over. So the forces of past and present, public and private, gathered around her in the spring of 1915. Small wonder she suffered from severe fatigue and sickness in June of that year. Grant catches a great deal of this troubled time in Bell's life in his portrait. Her thrown-back head is less languorous than tense at the jaw line and in the slightly arched eyebrows. She stares vacantly into space as though deeply preoccupied within. The gentle, inflected touch of the painting conveys much of Grant's feeling for this withdrawn beauty. The aloofness-intimacy dialogue of the work is masterfully underscored by the contrast of the rich red warmth of her dress and the cool yellow-green stripes of the chair. David Garnett, who was deeply attracted to her and sketched his own portrait of her at the time, remarked: "Her face had a grave beauty in repose: the perfect oval of a sculptured Madonna."

Patrick McCaughey, This other Eden, paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 184, no. 76, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA)

A Room of Their Own - The Artists of Bloomsbury in American Collections (Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, 2009-07-18 - 2009-10-18) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Figuring Women - The Female in Modern British Art (Yale Center for British Art, 2008-03-28 - 2008-06-08) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

Revisiting Traditions [BAC 20th century painting & sculpture] (Yale Center for British Art, 2002-04-30 - 2005-05-18) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

The Art of Bloomsbury : Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant (Yale Center for British Art, 2000-05-20 - 2000-09-03) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition] [Exhibition Description]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of South Australia, 1998-09-16 - 1998-11-15) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Queensland Art Gallery, 1998-07-15 - 1998-09-06) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

This Other Eden : British Paintings from the Paul Mellon Collection at Yale (Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1998-05-01 - 1998-07-05) [YCBA Objects in the Exhibition]

Malcolm Cormack, Concise Catalogue of Paintings in the Yale Center for British Art, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1985, pp. 106-107, N590.2 A83 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Bridget Elliott, Women artists and writers, modernist (im)positionings , Routledge & Kegan Paul, London New York, 1994, p. 86, fig. 3.6, NX180 F4 F4 E44 1994 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Gretchen Gerzina, A room of their own : the Bloomsbury artists in American collections, , Herbert F. Johnson Museum of Art, Ithaca, NY, 2008, p. 177, fig. 72, ND468.5.B55 R66 2008 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Julia Marciari-Alexander, This other Eden : Paintings from the Yale Center for British Art, , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 1998, p. 184, no. 76, ND1314.3 Y36 1998 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Paul Mellon's Legacy : a passion for British art [large print labels], , Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, CT, 2007, v. 1, N5220 M552 P381 2007 OVERSIZE (YCBA) [YCBA]

Christopher Reed, Bloomsbury rooms, modernism, subculture, and domesticity , Yale University Press, New Haven, Conn., 2004, p. 173, no. 126, NX543 R44 2004 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

Richard Shone, Bloomsbury portraits, Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant, and their circle , Phaidon, Oxford, 1993, p. 118, no. 90, ND 468 S56 1993 (YCBA) [YCBA]

Richard Shone, The art of Bloomsbury, Roger Fry, Vanessa Bell and Duncan Grant , Tate Publishing, London, 1999, p. 93, fig. 78, ND468.5 B55 S56 1999 + (YCBA) [YCBA]

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