The Letter (Partinude)

Maud Frances Eyston Sumner

Oil on Canvas
50.2 x 61.2cm
Signed: "Sumner" (Lower/Right)
Dated: 1936


Provenance:       Mr. J. Kadinsky, Johannesburg

Verso:                 Signed on stretcher, label, The South African association of Arts. Inscription; “Frame by Walter Brunnet, Cape Town”

Exhibited:          “Exhibition of South African Art Abroad”, in Paris hosted by The South African Association of Arts, sponsored by the Government of the Union (1948 – 1949), catalogue no                               98 “The Letter Partinude”

                             Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. 2004. Important Paintings by South African Artists from 1867 Onwards. Johannesburg.

Similar Work Illustrated:       Harmsen, F (1992). Maud Sumner: Painter and Poet. J.L van Schaik (Pty) Ltd: Pretoria. “Louise writing a Love Letter”, p. 74

Illustrated:          Graham’s Fine Art Gallery. 2004. Important Paintings by South African Artists from 1867 Onwards. Johannesburg.




“In the context of South African art she certainly stands as a major artist, an artist with a strong vision and a very active imagination,

who knew how to give expression to her vision in paintings of great artistic merit” (Werth, 1992:6)


Born in Johannesburg in 1902, Sumner travelled extensively, studying and living in both Paris and London.  She is considered to be one of the most international South African artists of her time due to her experience of French, English and South African life. 

Sumner once commented; “as a person I am South African and English, but as a painter I am French” (Berman, E. 1983:444).  In Paris she studied under Maurice Denis, the leading theorist of the Nabis movement and had the opportunity to meet many of the great artists of the day including Braque, Picasso, Léger and Villion

French modernism had a significant influence on her work and it is hardly surprising that her sensitive and intelligent paintings have caught the attention of major international collectors.  Sumner is represented in the Musée de l’Art Modern, Paris; the Stedelijk Museum, Amsterdam; the Ashmolean Museum, Oxford and the Contemporary Art Society, London amongst others.

The enigmatic figure in “The Letter” provokes a multiplicity of questions. Who is she and what does she represent?  The intimacy of the scene presents a paradox:  her hands cupped protectively around the letter opposed by the frank vulnerability of her exposed breasts. The figure is Louise; an enigma, who occurs in many different incarnations throughout Sumner’s work. 

Louise appears in a variety of paintings in different guises, the Muse, Marthe, “Cassandra”, and also the model for the Virgin Mary.  A strikingly similar piece titled “Louise Writing a Love Letter”, attributed to the mid forties, is illustrated in the Frieda Harmsen book, “Maud Sumner: Painter and Poet”.   The same objects are present; the umbrella, the books, soft fabric and a jug of flowers; all in the same position. However, the perspective is closer and more focused on Louise, who is fully attired in the composition.  In one of her last canvases “The Annunciation” Sumner returns to the composition of one of her favourite paintings (Louise writing a Love Letter).  The perspective is in profile; Louise (the virgin) is seated at the table, in the same pink dress.  Complete with favoured objects: her head is bowed before the messenger.

Expensive to hire and sometimes problematic in sustaining a pose, good models were difficult to find and Louise, the doll, was in fact the perfect solution. Sumner acquired the dolls head from her close friend and fellow artist Maria Blanchard, the body from a Belgian artist in the early thirties.

Louise was model, companion, and muse; the romantic and spiritual alter ego of the artist.  Sumner frequently introduced Louise to perplexed visitors. The inanimate companion provided a physical embodiment of the silent spirituality so important to Sumner.  “The Letter” is the artist at her most vulnerable.  Louise currently resides in London with Sumner’s nephew Michael.


Bibliography:          Berman, E. 1983. Art and Artists of South Africa: an Illustrated Biographical Dictionary and Historical Survey of Painters and Sculptors since 1875. Halfway House: Southern                                   Book Publishers

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