painter, was the third daughter of William Cockburn Mercer, a pioneer settler of Springwood, Wannon, in the Western District of Victoria. She was born in Scotland while her Australian mother was on a visit 'home’. She spent her childhood in Victoria until her mother took her to Italy to complete her education in her teens. Aged 17, Mary ran away to Paris, where she lived a Bohemian artist’s life in Montparnasse, mixing with Pablo Picasso and School of Paris artists Marc Chagall, Marie Laurencin, Jules Pascin and Kees van Dongen. In 1922 she worked as a studio assistant at L’Académie Lhôte, translating André Lhôte’s teachings for his English-speaking students and being influenced by his Synthetic Cubist ideas of dynamic symmetry.
In 1920-22, with her partner American artist Alexander Robinson, Mercer built a large house at Cassis in the south of France, where they moved in 1922. She painted oil and watercolour landscapes of the scenery around her influenced by Lhôte’s teaching, and collected works by artist friends including Chagall, van Dongen, Louis Marcoussis, Jean-Francis Laglenne, Valentine Prax, Roger Du Fresne and Gino Severini, according to McDonald. (St John Moore writes in Heritage : 'Mercer knew and collected School of Paris artists such as Lhote, Van Dongen, Chagall, Pascin and Laurencin; she also had works by Du Fresne, Severini, Marcoussis, Lurcat and Bissiere.’) Many remained in her collection until her death and formed part of a group of works retrieved in 1999 by Rollin Schlicht from behind a wardrobe in his parents’ home in Wimbledon, London. His father, the London art dealer Theo Schlicht, had been a friend of Mercer’s since childhood, when they had grown up together in the Western District of Victoria. Included was a folio of oil and watercolour paintings and sketches by Mercer herself, acquired by the NGA in 2001. Included is the small oil painting House and olive trees 1920s thought to be of her Cassis home.
Mercer became intimate with Janet Cumbrae Stewart in France in the 1920s, a friendship renewed at Melbourne in 1939. For a while, Mary rented a villa on Capri next door to Compton Mackenzie (who refers to her in his 1927 novel satirising the lesbian social set of Capri, Extraordinary Women ). In the Canaries she met and fell in love with a German photographer son of a wealthy industrialist. Together they went to Spain – and got caught up in the Spanish Civil War. He was forced to return to Germany for military service, while Mercer managed to escape in a ship that eventually arrived at Tahiti where she lived for some years. Then she moved to an island off Guam where she met the painter Ian Fairweather . Returning to Melbourne in 1938, she rented a studio apartment at 539 Bourke Street (the old St James Buildings) where she also held art classes. Two students who studied with her briefly in 1951 were Lina Bryans , who met her at a Fairweather exhibition at the Stanley Coe Gallery that year, and the NZ painter Colin McCahon.
Mercer attended George Bell 's School for two months in 1938 and remained close to Bell throughout the 1940s. During the war years she exhibited with the Contemporary Art Society (CAS), though her 'decadent’ nudes were often hung behind the gallery doors. McDonald states: 'Their overt sexuality shows the influence of Laurencin and Man Ray’s photographs of the famous model Kiki of Montparnasse. It was not until Mercer was in Melbourne that she concentrated fully on these figure studies, possibly influenced by Janet Cumbrae Stewart…. [who] had returned to Melbourne in 1939 and the two women again became lovers.’ One of her few positive reviewers was the painter and critic Adrian Lawlor , who in the Sun News Pictorial of 9 August 1942 praised the 'glowing reds of Rubens’ in her controversial Bacchante (quoted Eagle & Minchin) and in November praised the 'lyrical distortion’ of her portrait of Kathleen Schlicht, shown in the annual CAS exhibition at the Athenaeum Gallery. A painting of nude woman/Venus and a young boy clutching a penguin being swept on shore on icy Antarctic waves and surrounded by icebergs, rocks and penguins, Birth of Venus (Study in Diagonals) 1941, oil on board 69 × 72 cm, was first shown in Forty Seven Painters , Velasquez Gallery, Melbourne, in December 1941 (cat.56), and later (inter alia) in Classical Modernism: The George Bell Circle , National Gallery of Victoria, 1992, cat. 79, and Great Australian Artists of the Twentieth Century , Lake Macquarie City Art Gallery, July 1992, before being offered at Sotheby’s Melbourne on 5 May 2003 (lot 258, est. $4,000-6,000; sold for c.$7,000).
As well as Cumbrae Stewart and Fairweather, Mercer’s special friends in Melbourne were her [gay] neighbours in the St James Buildings, David Strachan and Wolfgang Cardamatis – who had spent time in Europe – and the modernist artists William Frater , Arnold Shore and Lina Bryans. When Mercer returned to Cassis in about 1952, she left some of her Australian works with Bryans. Bryans visited her in France in 1953, and it was Bryans who donated Mercer’s major painting, The Virgin of the Rocks 1943, to the Art Gallery of SA in 1984. Felicity St John Moore wrote about this painting in Heritage :
Mary Cockburn Mercer’s strange allegory was painted in her studio in the St James Buildings, Melbourne, during the darkest period of World War II-a war which separated this mainly expatriate artist from her beloved Europe. Both theme and title were borrowed from the novel, read in the original Italian, Le Vergini delle Rocce , by her favourite decadent author, Gabriele d’Annunzio (1863-1938). One can perhaps assume that Mercer identified with the passage in d’Annunzio’s prologue: ' I was about to enter an enclosed garden. There the three virgin princesses were awaiting the friend who had been absent so long… the return of an equal, of a sojourner in great cities, one who should bring them a breath of that larger life which they had renounced. And each one of them perhaps in her secret heart was awaiting the bridegroom. '
With the 'bridegroom’ doubling as the Crucified Christ (the feet at the top) and the three virgins (or Maries) trebling as 'the Graces or Gorgons’, Mercer’s picture is layered with classical references, memories of her villa at Capri and personal meanings, symbols and fantasies. The affected virgins-one blonde, one brunette and one redhead-are carefully posed at the foot of an elaborate stone fountain, d’Annunzio’s 'pompous composition of Neptune’s horses, tritons, dolphins’, in a grotto strewn with roses. Below the fountain stands a grotesque coil and claw foot, while at the top of the picture, as if to balance the composition, are the disembodied feet. (They may belong to her German lover, a photographer she met in the Canaries who was forced to return to Germany for military service, or to her American painter friend in Cassis, Alexander Robinson, who was interned during the Occupation.) Like the 'sacrificial lamb’ next to the seated virgin (Mary had a little lamb?), these splayed feet are symbols of Death and Christ’s Passion, while the rampant sea horses whose stamping hoofs ripple the waters of the fountain, signal a more normal or animal passion to evoke d’Annunzio’s line, 'Here did Pleasure and Death admire their united reflection’.
Mercer’s picture is linked through her literary source with the avant-garde currents of Symbolism and Decadence, except that Symbolist flatness and linearity have been replaced by the 'reality’ of her models and blocky cubist-derived forms. Reflecting her espousal of the New Classicism of Leger, Lhote, Gleizes, Du Fresne and others, these blocky forms are constructed on a geometric scaffolding according to the system of dynamic symmetry. This scaffolding, which is barely disguised by the abundance of tilted arms and legs, turned wrists and elongated necks, helps to explain the fragmented and disturbing effect of her complex composition.
Given that Mercer was familiar with Leonardo da Vinci’s magical Virgin of the Rocks (quotations from Leonardo’s Notebooks are sprinkled through d’Annunzio’s text), her contrastingly unnatural and mannered treatment of the same theme-shallow airless space, distorted figures and enlarged feet-is deliberately perverse. But so too are the romances of Gabriele d’Annunzio, which struck a chord with this well-read, independent and pro tempore frustrated artist who lived her life with such gusto. Drawing on her understanding of European art and literature, Mary Cockburn Mercer translated the boredom of daily life into the vocabulary of high art. She gave The Virgins of the Rocks to Lina Bryans when she left Australia after the war.
A sparkling hostess, Mercer travelled widely, spoke fluent French and Italian and began to learn Russian in her seventies when forced to give up painting because of severe arthritis. She spent the last ten years of her life in France, selling the Cassis villa and building a small house in the grounds of a convalescent home in Aubagne [she swapped her villa for an apartment in Aubagne, according to McDonald]. She died there on 14 August 1963, aged eighty-one. Her work was largely forgotten until 1975 when the Victorian art dealer Russell Davis held an exhibition of her work, having come across six or seven of her paintings in 1972 then spent three years discovering her romantic life story.