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image icon 'Al fresco'

'Al fresco'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting on canvas of an 'al fresco' or open air informal meal. It was painted in Paris around 1904 by Australian artist E Phillips Fox (1865-1915), and measures 153.6 cm x 195.6 cm. It shows a group of adults and a young girl being served tea and cake by a maid. The model for the woman in the light-coloured dress on the right was probably Ethel Carrick, the wife of the artist. In the foreground of the work, a dog sits begging for food from the table.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is French Impressionist in style and shows impressive control of dappled sunlight and shadow - French artists of this period enjoyed exploring the aesthetic possibilities of playing off areas of shadow against patches of bright light
  • uses bright colours and thickly textured paint, seen in the spots of light falling on the group and the flowers glimpsed through the doorway - this suggests that Fox had a familiarity with or understanding of the work of French artists such as Pierre Bonnard (1867-1947), and Edouard Vuillard (1868-1940); Vuillard had been a fellow student of Fox's when he studied in Paris
  • has been conceived as a symphony in colour (in keeping with the style of the period) - the black of the dog and the man's coat are used to counterbalance the light tones of the dress of one of the women and the tablecloth, while the red of the other woman's dress creates the centrepiece around which all other colours rotate
  • has particular qualities that relate to the way in which the artist worked - the paint has an overall 'dry' quality because it has been thinly applied over the canvas, which has occasionally been allowed to show through
  • is the first of Fox's paintings to depict a family meal in an outdoor setting, in which he celebrates contrasts of light and shade - the work was painted in Paris, and the setting of a shaded courtyard full of filtered sunlight may be the artist's own Paris garden
  • is similar in theme to the depiction of luncheons in a garden or courtyard setting that was very popular with French artists of the period - Fox may have seen Edouard Manet's (1832-83) now famous painting 'Le déjeuner' when it was shown in London in 1904
  • gave Australian audiences a taste of a cosmopolitan and exotic lifestyle - although one critic declared at the time ('Table Talk', 5 March 1908) that 'the work ... has no appeal to Australians to whom out-of-door eating suggests abominable memories of flies and bull ants'
  • represents, for contemporary audiences, a dream of an untroubled era, long gone, with the presence of the begging dog in particular helping to convey the lighthearted and relaxed mood of the gathering - the turn-of-the-century world of elegant, leisurely life which Fox and other artists depicted came to an end with the outbreak of the First World War.