Grace Jane Joel, the sixth of nine children and first daughter of Kate Woolf and her husband, Maurice Joel, was born at Dunedin, New Zealand, on 28 May 1865. Her parents were both born in England and had married in Victoria, Australia. Maurice Joel, a merchant, became a successful brewer and importer of wines and spirits and a prominent member of Dunedin's Jewish community. He was a cousin of the future premier Julius Vogel.
Grace Joel came from a cultivated family and she was fortunate to live in a community, which placed a high value on education, including education for women. She attended Otago Girls' High School from 1875 to 1882 but there is no evidence of adolescent skill as an artist. It is possible that she later studied at the Otago School of Art. However, her vocation was clearly demonstrated by her joining the Otago Art Society at the age of 21, and then studying at the National Gallery School in Melbourne in 1888--89 and from 1891 to 1894. She was probably attracted by the Melbourne school's singleminded commitment to fine arts in contrast with the Otago School of Art's more diverse responsibilities, which embraced both fine arts and technical drawing.
After returning to Dunedin in mid 1894 Grace Joel made a determined effort to establish herself as a professional artist, exhibiting, teaching and sharing in the life of the local art establishment, notably the Otago Art Society and the short-lived Easel Club. She concentrated on the figure and portraits, affirming an artistic vision distinct from the prevailing local aesthetic trends of the time. Her association in this period with the Italian artist G. P. Nerli, then resident in Dunedin, may have influenced her choice of subjects. Her feeling for rich colour was already evident.
Grace Joel left for Europe around 1899, settling in London but working and studying in France and the Netherlands. Some peasant genre scenes date from this period; but fundamentally, unlike fellow Dunedin expatriate Frances Hodgkins for instance, she had no interest in the conventional exoticism of picturesque sketching grounds. Her prime concern remained the figure.
A return visit to New Zealand in 1906 bears the hallmarks of a second attempt to establish herself in this country; successful solo exhibitions in Sydney, Melbourne and Dunedin, lengthy reports published by an obliging press and participation in several group exhibitions repeat the pattern of the 1890s. But her response to the dilemma that faced many of her artist contemporaries was to return to London, by 1908 at the latest, and that city remained her base until her death there in 1924.
Joel exhibited regularly in France and Great Britain with conservative bodies such as the Royal Academy of Arts in London and the Société des artistes français in Paris - choices which belie the progressive and innovative appearance of her work when set in the New Zealand context. A comparison between her European works and the full range of contemporary French and British painting suggests that she deliberately chose themes and a style likely to earn recognition in forums still held in high regard in New Zealand. Her persistence was rewarded by the modest award of an honourable mention at the salon of the Artistes français in 1923.
There are similarities between her work - in particular the sentimental and tender studies of mothers and children, and the sensuous nudes - and that of William Bouguereau, one of the conservative French painters of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Bouguereau was a teacher at the Académie Julian, where Joel studied briefly around 1900--1901, and a member of the salon jury. Similarities can also be found with the work of Pierre Auguste Renoir, whom an unconfirmed source identifies as her teacher. Family tradition cites the dancer Isadora Duncan and the political activist Sylvia Pankhurst among her friends. Although her success was modest and there is little evidence of sales, she was able to bequeath £500 to endow a scholarship at the National Gallery School in Melbourne for painting from the nude.
Grace Joel died of cancer at Kensington, London, on 6 March 1924. She had never married. She was a private person and no significant personal papers survive. It is on terms she herself created - her self-portraits - that posterity must approach her. In the most commanding of these, 'Self-portrait, wearing a hat' (c. 1905--10), a determined professional woman artist, innovative within the New Zealand context but unable to make a career there or to impose her work in the European arena she chose, nevertheless faces us confidently from beneath a dramatic broad-brimmed hat.
R. D. J. COLLINS
From: R. D. J. Collins. 'Joel, Grace Jane', from the Dictionary of New Zealand Biography. Te Ara - the Encyclopedia of New Zealand, updated 29-Oct-2013
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