Today, we’re delighted to introduce artist Megan Seres, who has been commissioned to create four oil portraits of the Sisters of Mercy Brisbane Congregation’s remarkable 19th century women—our foundress Catherine McAuley, Mother Vincent (Ellen) Whitty, benefactress Florence O’Reilly and Sr Jane Gorry (the first Queensland sister). The portraits will hang in one of the two original Adderton parlours, offering visitors a fresh insight into these evocative faces of Mercy.
Megan’s practice is inspired by contemporary reinterpretations of 18th and 19th century women’s experiences and stories, especially those of girls and women in colonial Australia. Her oil paintings reference the old masters in her use of rich colour, and light and dark. They are immediately captivating, but also multi-layered with symbolism and meaning. Megan says ‘exploring the boundaries between what is observed, what is imagined and what is hidden or forgotten is of enormous importance to my work’.
Megan has been a finalist in Australia’s most prestigious art prizes including the Archibald Prize, Blake Prize and the Mosman Art Prize. In 2016 she won the influential Doug Moran National Portrait Prize for her work ‘Scarlett as Colonial Girl’. The painting (shown above) depicts her daughter posing as 11 year old convict Mary Wade. Speaking on behalf of the judging panel, judge Doug Hall said that the work ’embraces history, while casting it into the contemporary realm … it is subtle, it’s withheld, it’s beautiful, it’s ambiguous and we are overwhelmed by it.’
We hope you enjoy reading Megan’s motivations and thoughts on this exciting commission. It is a pleasure for us to work with Megan to reveal our founding women in a new light … and we can’t wait to see the works hanging in the refurbished Adderton: house & heart of mercy!
Tell us a little bit about your art practice, and how the founding women portrait project relates to your work?
My oil paintings reference the old masters use of both chiaroscuro (light and dark) and glazes (a small amount of pigment in a liquid medium) which helps to create a luminous effect. The unique power that certain narratives can hold, especially the lives of women and children is of great interest to me.
Many of my works to date are drawn from 18th and 19th century themes with references found in art, poetry, text, films and history. At present, I am researching the lives of women and children of early European settlement and am intrigued by the Australian colonial era.
The founding women of Adderton portrait project fits the criteria as it addresses what it was like for women of that time, with themes ranging from social structures, ownership, independence, oppression to adornment, displacement and isolation.
What were your first impressions of Adderton when you visited?
When I walked into Adderton it was impossible not to get excited. Commanding respect because of its age and beauty, it is a building steeped in history past and present, about to be renovated to its former glory. It holds the potential and power to speak of the historically significant and fascinating lives held within its walls.
Wandering into each room, the large windows, the beautiful staircase that is worthy of a certain reverence, I felt a great sense of honour and privilege to be asked to help bring the Adderton women’s stories into the light.
What are the challenges in portraying historical women in art, and what are your favourite aspects of this work?
My first challenge was to render the four founding women at earlier ages than their photographs so it was important to understand the underlying structure of their face and how we age. Even though I didn’t have a picture of Catherine McAuley, her description was very clear and the easiest to reconstruct due to creative licence.
My second challenge was how to portray the women with respect and dignity, avoiding stereotypical portrayals, by this I mean perfunctory or superficial portrayals. Even when you have a rich source of information from the past you need to carefully sift through to find the essence of who they were by painting sensitive, humanistic and honest portrayals.
Building upon and reinterpreting the masterful work of my forebears it was also important to me that these women spoke to the viewer through direct eye contact. That they reached out to you in a way that gave the audience a deeper understanding of who they were, offering a glimpse into the past, offered by the space around them and the landscape. I have also left narrative clues that hint at their personalities and their time in history. This was deeply satisfying and definitely one of my favourite aspects of this work.
You are painting portraits of Catherine McAuley, Ellen Whitty, Florence O’Reilly and Jane Gorry. Is there one woman whose story particularly resonates with you?
Painting these women, the shape of their faces, the lines of their nose, the partial hint of a smile or not, the colour of their eyes, hair and clothes, the items that they hold, the landscape that surrounds them, it is a testament to my love for these women. Their stories not only hold me but have enriched my life in so many ways … I have embraced all their stories and my heart resonates with them all.
Each of the four women had such interesting lives so it is difficult to choose, but Catherine McAuley was an extraordinary person who managed to change attitudes regarding the capacity of religious women to participate in the community. Prior to this, it was expected that these women stay within the confines of the cloister. I loved that when Catherine founded the Order of the Sisters of Mercy, they were nicknamed ‘The Walking Nuns’.
Catherine, Ellen, Florence and Jane all offered in their own way, with compassion, resilience and strength of character, a great service to the enormous societal needs of colonial Australia. This was something no government at the time provided. Their contribution was indeed profound.
What have you taken away from this project?
Apart from the above, the belief that women were at the heart of shaping this vast dry continent with courage, tenacity, foresight and forbearance and that their contributions are of great historical significance and should never be minimised or ignored.