This ethereal canvas hangs in a teaching room at the Royal Academy of Music, where it vies for space with works by Marc Chagall, Camille Pissarro and Joan Miró.

Marie Laurencin was one of the few female artists of the Paris avant-garde associated with Cubism, and was a close friend of Georges Braque. She was also a theatre set and costume designer and society portraitist. She lived her life uncompromisingly – a passionate relationship with the poet Guillaume Apollinaire, a failed marriage to a German baron, and many affairs with men and women.

Vase de fleurs

Vase de fleurs 1920s

Marie Laurencin (1883–1956)

Royal Academy of Music

Her use of amorphous female imagery and illustrations of Sappho's poetry reflect a fascination with lesbianism, which was rooted in her rejection of social conventions. Her work is characterised by pastel colours and a bold female aesthetic, but she was overlooked in her time as a pioneering modernist.

This painting is part of a large collection bequeathed by Harriet Cohen, an alumna of the Academy and a virtuoso pianist. A condition of her gift was that the works all hang together in a room dedicated to composer Sir Arnold Bax. Cohen was known for her interpretation of J. S. Bach and as a champion of contemporary English music; many composers wrote for her. She was linked with many high-profile personalities in the 1930s and 1940s, loved entertaining and became a prolific art collector.

Harriet Cohen

Harriet Cohen 1925

Clara Klinghoffer (1900–1970)

National Portrait Gallery, London

Cohen, who was Jewish, championed the cause of refugees before and during the Second World War and raised funds for those fleeing Nazi Germany. But her personal life was marred by tragedy; she had a doomed, life-long romance with Bax, and in 1948 she cut her right hand so badly in an accident that she was unable to play the piano. After a struggle playing pieces for the left hand, she retired from performance a short time before her death.

Cohen's legacy means students are surrounded by beautiful works of art as they study, and displaying them in a working space rather than a gallery creates a heady blend of visual and aural inspiration.

Gabrielle Gale, Museum Curator, Royal Academy of Music

A version of this article was originally published by The Guardian as part of The Great British Art Tour