Roy de Maistre was born LeRoy Leveson Laurent Joseph de Mestre at Bowral, New South Wales, in 1894. One of six children, he grew up in a former residence of the governors of New South Wales and along with his siblings was home tutored rather than going off to school. De Maistre left Bowral when he was nineteen to study music and painting in Sydney and the two pastimes were henceforth to become his main foci.
A strong personal interest in the psychological effects of colour on mental health led to the co-invention of a colour wheel with his fellow artist and friend Roland Wakelin, in 1919. This was designed to assemble colour schemes from a musical chromatic scale, exemplifying the crossovers between art and music that de Maistre was to further develop in his painting from the late 1910s and early 1920s.
In 1923 de Maistre received a Society of Artist’s Travelling Scholarship to travel and live in England and France for three years. Though he was to return to Australia, he ended up spending the rest of his life in England, punctuated by frequent visits to the south of France where he responded enthusiastically to the sharp Mediterranean light. As art historian Ann Galbally has noted, de Maistre finally began to receive due public recognition for his work in the 1940s and that ‘His importance in contemporary British Art was firmly established by the retrospective exhibition he was given at the Whitechapel Gallery in 1961.’
River landscape, south west France c.1923-26 is believed to have been painted by de Maistre when he was travelling and living in France for the first time in the early 1920s. However, the work presents the art historian with several challenges: it was donated to the Benalla Art Gallery in 1977 with a generic title, Landscape, and no date. The current title and date were updated in 2002, presumably to account for the stylistic similarities with other works painted nearby to the small Basque village of Saint-Jean-de-Luz. This is where de Maistre visited in 1923 and then returned to in 1925 for a three-month period.
De Maistre rarely dated his works and the titles sometimes came after. In this case, there are clear parallels with paintings of the Pyrenees Mountains and the French hinterland that he produced both in 1925 and on return visits to Saint-Jean-de-Luz dating from 1930. De Maistre’s cousin Camilla Keogh and his friends the Lengs had properties in Saint-Jean-de-Luz and he often travelled to the Continent during the 1930s with his friends and main patrons Rab Butler and his first wife Sydney Courtauld.
Paintings from this period feature de Maistre’s Post-impressionist painting technique and a tendency to reduce the landscape to flat areas of strong colour, outlined in black. They depict the typical Basque farmhouses of the area with their white-washed walls and red tile roofs and the contrasts between undulating landscape punctuated by sharp inclines and distinctively shaped hills.
Sources: Ann Galbally, ‘Homage to Roy de Maistre’, Joseph Brown Gallery, Melbourne, 1971; Heather Johnson, Roy de Maistre: The Australian years 1894-1930, Craftsman House, Sydney, 1988