Fragility, despair and boredom are the pillars to Madeleine Pfull’s
paintings of elderly women

What better way of understanding your characters than to fully become them? For Australian-based artist Madeleine Pfull, she does just that – creating imagery devised from reference photographs, she poses using make-up, dress and wigs to become one with her elderly ladies.

Drawn towards painting the older woman and the tasks of the mundane, Madeleine’s work is abound with detailed expressions, refined characters and a sprinkle of the hyperreal. “I love storytelling,” she tells It’s Nice That. Most eye-catching – or eye-confusing – are her paired paintings and use of a linear sequence. “I think there is a very subtle narrative in the works, which is aided by the dual paintings. There are a few layers to these women – they are great characters in themselves.”

When navigating through her recent 2019 collection, it begins with a lady in stripes sat at her kitchen table. At first, she looks uneasily into the camera, before another painting sees her instantly and solemnly look away. Next, Sao Lady makes an entrance while she tucks into a Sao cracker – a further painting follows as she waves it down and earnestly looks into the distance. What’s caught her attention? We wonder. Elsewhere, a poolside scene sees two women laying side by side, where the water glistens and the sun is beaming – a perfect setting for topping up the tan.

These scenes and the women who appear in them are emblematic of all things normal. Normal, so it seems, if it weren’t for the harsh contrast between light and shadow, colour and composition, in which Madeleine uses to perfection. Either way, fragility, despair and boredom are the pillars to her work and to that which she explores with great accomplishment. First achieved through the use of older women: “I think if I were to paint women who were more my age then it would change the agenda,” she says, “which is an unfortunate aspect of the visual associations of a young female.”


The female protagonist is her focus point throughout, and the artist is inspired heavily by the New Objectivity Movement, as well as late 18th century British portrait painting with “women who look bored stiff”. The majority of her paintings, however, stem from an idea or an action taken from everyday life. “Some of them have come from events I’ve witnessed, like an aunt moaning that Helen’s scones were so awful she spat it back onto the plate. Then I will build up a character, determining the right clothes and hair and where she lives.” She continues: “I’ve been questioning whether I can start interconnecting these characters with each other, or create a scenario where they all come together. I think it’s going to be a few more years of work before that though.”


Looking towards the future, Madeleine expresses a somewhat pessimistic view of such. Although currently working on a show in New York with Johannes Vogt Gallery in November – that will present new pieces in a similar vein to those shown here – she explains another reason for her character building. “Another reason for these particular characters is that I can easily see myself becoming one of them, which is engrossing and a little nerve-wracking,” she admits. “But in the same vein, with the world going as it is, I see that my future of this has been taken away.”