Artist to Know: Jessica Dismorr

Liz Catalano
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Eldred’s to Present Two Paintings by Pioneering Abstract Artist

Jessica Dismorr, Jessica Dismorr (self-portrait), c. 1929. Image © National Portrait Gallery, London.
Jessica Dismorr, Jessica Dismorr (self-portrait), c. 1929. Image © National Portrait Gallery, London.

Amid the mayhem of avant-garde London in the 1910s, a group of artists gathered to offer an English alternative to Cubism and Expressionism. Using Ezra Pound’s modernist view of the ‘vortex,’ the rising Vorticists placed themselves at the center of a bustling art scene. English painter Jessica Dismorr was one of two women who joined the group. Her male counterparts derided her work despite including her in exhibitions. That did not deter Dismorr. She participated in almost every major avant-garde art movement in early 20th-century Britain. Dismorr later situated herself as a pioneer of abstraction. 

Two paintings by Jessica Dismorr will hit the auction block in late October. Eldred’s Women in the Arts auction will begin at 4:00 PM EDT on October 28th, 2021. Learn more about Dismorr before placing a bid.

Jessica Dismorr, In the Alpes Maritimes, France, c. 1910. Image from Eldred’s.
Jessica Dismorr, In the Alpes Maritimes, France, c. 1910. Image from Eldred’s.

Raised in a wealthy household, Jessica Dismorr had extraordinary access to education from an early age. She studied at the Slade School of Fine Art starting in 1903. The School encouraged its women pupils to live as equals to men. Dismorr nurtured an interest in drawing that only grew when she studied at the Académie de la Palette in Paris. The city was a passageway into the avant-garde world. Dismorr experimented with Fauvism and radical politics while there. She would need both to enter the Vorticist group. 

The Vorticists were small in number but determined to place London on the modern art map. Dismorr signed the movement’s manifesto in 1914. The group printed its ideals alongside calls for women’s suffrage and English innovation. However, the outbreak of World War I halted the Vorticists’ efforts before they gained much traction. Dismorr served as a nurse during the war years and experienced the strain of an unstable world. In her pre-war paintings, abstraction and geometric shapes were the dominant themes. Dismorr closely followed the nearly Cubist style adopted and modified by the Vorticists. After the war, she turned to the portraits and landscapes that charmed her as an up-and-coming artist.

Jessica Dismorr, Southern France Landscape, c. 1910. Image from Eldred’s.
Jessica Dismorr, Southern France Landscape, c. 1910. Image from Eldred’s.

The upcoming Women in the Arts auction, presented by Eldred’s, includes two pastel-colored landscape paintings from Jessica Dismorr’s early career. Both works depict the rolling countryside of Southern France, likely completed while Dismorr was studying abroad. Though they are strictly representational, the curving lines and loose forms evoke the abstraction that Dismorr later embraced. In the Alpes Maritimes, France shows various trees growing in front of blue mountain peaks (estimate: USD 6,000 – $8,000). Southern France Landscape shows the streaked hills of Provence in shades of green, mustard, and violet (estimate: $6,000 – $8,000). 

Dismorr continued to join radical groups despite their meager support for women artists. At the same time, she refused to alter her style or chosen subject matter. Dismorr often painted portraits of her women friends, performers, and wealthy patrons. She immortalized those women in her paintings with broad brushstrokes and a preference for pastels. Dismorr’s good years held steady through the 1920s and 30s but did not last. Fascism was on the rise across Europe during Dismorr’s mature period, and she demonstrated an awareness of this trend. She exhibited with anti-fascist groups and increasingly leaned toward the abstraction that the Nazis detested. A lifelong poet, Dismorr also wrote extensively about her mental health troubles and experiences in the male-dominated art world. 

Opposing nationalism was not easy. Dismorr experienced several nervous breakdowns during this period before she died by suicide in 1939. Britain was on the cusp of war with Germany. Avant-garde British artists such as Dismorr received less attention due to the war effort, and her work virtually disappeared for decades. Some of her paintings languished in storage, while others were destroyed or taken into private collections.

Jessica Dismorr, Mrs Ody. Image from Bonhams.
Jessica Dismorr, Mrs Ody. Image from Bonhams.

Efforts to revive Dismorr’s work in recent years have been more successful. Her connections to the suffrage movement caught the eye of feminist art historians. Additional scholarship and gallery attention helped rebuild a market for her paintings. Dismorr’s early landscapes typically sell for $4,000 and above. In recent years, some of her works have exceeded $10,000 each. One Dismorr painting came to auction during Bonhams’ September 2021 sale featuring modern British women artists. The piece, titled Mrs. Ody, sold for $26,231. It more than doubled its high presale estimate. 

Two Jessica Dismorr oil paintings will come to auction with Eldred’s on October 28th, 2021 at 4:00 PM EDT. Find the complete catalog and register to bid on Eldred’s website. 

Looking for more artist profiles? Auction Daily recently examined the work of Karl Wirsum, a founding member of Chicago’s Hairy Who group. 

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Liz Catalano
Liz Catalano
Senior Writer and Editor

Liz Catalano is a writer and editor for Auction Daily. She covers fine art sales, market analysis, and social issues within the auction industry. She regularly collaborates with auction houses and other clients. A Chicago native, she holds a BSW degree and is based in Pennsylvania.

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