Vanessa Bell garnered attention and acclaim as a painter of her time. But her work was constantly overshadowed by her sister Virginia’s literary fame. Both were part of the Bloomsbury Group, a collective of famous personalities such as writers, intellectuals, and artists working outside the Victorian system. They defended creative, sexual, and religious freedom.
Unlike Virginia, Vanessa was born in 1879 and was of a quiet, reasonable, maternal nature. Both of these women were educated at home; their father motivated their artistic abilities, and in 1899 he enrolled Vanessa at the Royal Academy of Arts, where she was mentored by John Singer Sargent.
Bell was taken by the first exhibit of postimpressionist art in England in 1910. She took in the works of Cézanne, Matisse, and Picasso. As she found her aesthetic, romantic entanglements seemed to arise in her select group. Her husband Clive fell in love with Virginia Woolf, but she never showed interest. They maintained an open relationship which allowed for her to have affairs with art critic Roger Fry and painter Duncan Grant. It was with the latter that she had a daughter, Angelica Bell.
Bell was constantly innovating and experimenting with different styles. She also ventured in design endeavours with Fry and Grant, creating Omega Workshops. Her modern products such as furniture and mosaics proved to be too much for Victorian tastes. In 1915 she started designing fabrics for dresses that were becoming popular. She also designed the original covers of her sister's novels and essays.
She painted every day, except for a mourning period after her son Julian was killed in the Spanish Civil War. Her feminine portraits are a vision of the obstacles women faced at the start of the modern age.
A woman who was more than just part of tumultuous love affairs and sister to one of the most acclaimed literary voices, Bell is considered as one of the greatest portrait and landscape artists of the twentieth century.