Grace Smith was born in the Sydney suburb of Neutral Bay in 1892.
Her parents Ernest and Grace Smith had moved to Australia from England around 1890. She was one of 5 siblings in their Thornleigh home.
Smith attended Abbotsleigh School for Girls in Wahroonga. Then in 1912, aged about 20, Smith travelled to Europe for further study. She took drawing classes in England and Germany. In Germany, she was inspired by the work of Jean-Antoine Watteau, a French artist known for fête galante in the 1700s.
Smith returned to Sydney in 1914 and became interested in modernist theories of art. She looked at colour theory, the illusion of depth, expressive brushstrokes and abstract composition. During this time, she studied under Italian-born artist and teacher Dattilo Rubbo. Rubbo ran a notable studio on Rowe Street, a quaint arty street between Castlereagh and Pitt streets that was demolished in the 1970s.
Smith lived most of her life in the family home 'Cossington', at Turramurra. The house was named after her mother's childhood home in Leicestershire, 'Cossington Hall'. At her mother's suggestion, in 1920, Smith took on the middle name 'Cossington' to better define her professional name.
World War I
During the war, Australian women mainly held responsibilities on the home front. Some served as nurses, cooks and clerks, and a few worked as artists, correspondents and doctors.
Australia didn't commission any official female war artists during World War I. But many aspects of life in this period were captured by women. Artists well known for their wartime artworks include Hilda Rix, Isobel Rae and Grace Cossington Smith.
Smith's work focused on the home front. She created one of her most famous paintings, 'The Sock Knitter', in 1915. This early post-impressionist painting depicts Smith's sister making socks for Australian soldiers overseas. Later, it came to symbolise the broader contribution of Australian women during the war, many of whom helped to knit over 1.3 million pairs of socks.
Throughout World War I, Smith created other works, including 'Reinforcements: troops marching' in 1917.
World War II
While Smith was not an official war artist, she produced many wartime artworks in World War II.
Her paintings depicted many significant moments during the war, such as the arrival of Allied troops in France, a dinner with Allied leaders at Yalta, and a religious mass after the war ended. These paintings were a departure from her usual style of painting still life in situ and landscapes en plein air:
Life after war
Smith's art continued to evolve throughout her life. She painted many Sydney landscapes, still lifes and interiors, such as The Lacquer Room (1936).
Her paintings were unique, with individual square brush strokes and unblended bright colours.
In 1973, a retrospective exhibition of her work toured Australia.
Smith was made an Officer of the Order of the British Empire (OBE) for her services to Australian art.
When she was appointed an Officer of the Order of Australia (AO) in 1983, the Governor of New South Wales visited Smith in her nursing home to honour her with the award.
Grace Cossington Smith died on 20 December 1984, aged 92.