A painter of portrait, interiors, still life and landscapes, Bessie Davidson was born in North Adelaide, Australia, to a Scottish family and was always proud of her roots. Amongst her ancestors were the renowned sculptor William Gowan and the painter Frances Gowan.
As many young Australian artists in the early 20th century, Davidson travelled to Europe to further her studies, first at the Künstlerinner Verein in Munich and then at the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Montparnasse, Paris, where her teacher was the painter René-Xavier Prinet. During two defining years in Paris, Davidson made friends in the art and literary establishments and experienced the full gamut of French art from Beaux-Arts Academicism to the famous Salon d’Automne of 1905 when Fauvism burst upon the scene. Davidson exhibited at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français and at the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. She became a founding member of and exhibited with the Salon des Tuileries.
After a short period in Australia, Davidson returned to Paris in 1910, found a studio in Montparnasse and lived there for the rest of her life. Despite a conservative appearance and a rather private nature, she was in fact highly romantic in temperament, brave, loyal and with a gift for friendship. While never relinquishing her British nationality, she adored France and at the start of War World I, she joined the French Red Cross Societies and worked as a nurse, eventually running a hospital for the wounded.
After the war, Davidson showed her paintings frequently in Paris, winning praise from the critics. She was an associate, member and secretary of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts. In 1930 she became vice-president of La Société Femmes Artistes Modernes; she was also a founding member of the Société Nationale Indépendentes. In 1931 she received the Legion of Honour for her Services to Art and to France. She contributed to L'Exposition du Groupe Feminin at the Petit Palais de la Ville de Paris in 1938. Davidson was later represented in the annual International Exhibition at the Carnegie Institute of Technology, Pittsburgh, and exhibited at St Louis and New York, United States of America, in Edinburgh, and with the International Society of Sculptors, Painters and Gravers, in London and at Venice, Italy.
Until the early 1920s, Davidson painted mainly in tempera, usually figures in interiors as well as some portraits and still-lifes in clear, fine and delicately handled tones, exhibiting regularly in the Salons and gaining enthusiastic reviews from the critics who praised the subtlety of her handling of colour and her 'generous, spontaneous and beautifully painted works'. In the mid-1920s, she discovered oils and her style changed dramatically to a much more vigorous, post-impressionist manner which revealed visually the underlying influence of Cézanne that she had long nourished. The years 1920-1938 were marked by great changes and abundant production of full force, openness and scale. Now she painted many landscapes, seeking out dramatic sea or mountain scenery in both France and Scotland, the land of her forebears, to which she felt a special bond. She also travelled extensively in Austria, Russia, Italy, Morocco and Switzerland. With her career approaching its zenith, Bessie sent a message to her father: 'I can sell as many pictures as I can paint. I was born under a lucky star . . . never worry about me'.
America, and had many solo exhibitions in France. She was active in the art world of Paris, particularly in promoting the cause of women artists, and received several awards. Her works are held in public collections in Australia, France, Scotland and the Netherlands and in many private collections around the world.
Davidson died on 22 February 1965 at Montparnasse and was buried in a cemetery at St Saëns, Normandy.
Public collections include
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Musée des Beaux-Arts de Beaune, Beaune
National Galleries of Scotland, Edinburg
Musée d’Orsay, Paris
Musée du Petit Palais, Paris
National Gallery of South Australia, Melbourne