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Australian Impressionism

Gallery of works
24 June - 31 October 2017
Australian Art galleries | Level 1
Free entry

Heralding the return of Arthur Streeton's Golden summer, Eaglemont from the National Gallery, London, all of the NGA's masterpieces of Australian Impressionism will be hung together in a new display, offering an unprecedented opportunity to experience the depth and richness of the national collection. Curator Emma Kindred explores some of the featured artists and works:

At the close of the nineteenth century, London was the largest city in the world and Australian artists such as Tom Roberts, Charles Douglas Richardson and Arthur Streeton continued to be drawn 'home' to the centre of the British Empire. A succession of artists who had trained at the National Gallery School in Melbourne during the 1880s sought to establish themselves in the artistic hubs of London and Paris, travelling with ambitions to advance their skills, gaining access to both recent developments in art and the bounty of European collections. The return of artists such as Roberts from London and E Phillips Fox from Paris heralded significant periods of change within their artistic circles in Australia, influencing both their students and their peers.

From 1881 to 1885, Roberts undertook study at the Royal Academy Schools in London and travelled through parts of Europe, enjoying the brilliant sun and Moorish architecture of Andalusia for three months in 1883. One of his earliest surviving canvases, The sculptor's studio 1885, was painted at the end of his time in London. The model for the sculptor was friend and fellow student Harry Bates. One of the Academy School's most celebrated students of the period, Bates received a gold medal and 200 travelling scholarship in 1883 for a small plaster version of a bas-relief sculpture, Socrates teaching the people in the Agora.

Tom Roberts The sculptor's studio 1885, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1972

In The sculptor's studio, Roberts positions Bates at work on a larger version of the relief. The textural modelling of the paint surface and restrained palette build upon a pattern established in his Spanish works such as Basking-a corner of the Alhambra 1883. Drawing on the Victorian appetite for Greek and Roman subjects, Roberts sets the classical frieze within a contemporary artist's studio. The device alerts us to the role of the artist as maker and craftsman and to the legacy of academic training.

The central London location of the Royal Academy Schools provided Roberts with opportunities for immersion within a vital artistic community. His formal education was supplemented with sessions from two masters of portraiture, John Everett Millais and George Frederick Watts, while his enthusiasm for the work of American James Abbott McNeill Whistler and the French plein-air painters was encouraged by exhibitions in the early 1880s. At the Royal Academy, he saw the work of the naturalist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose tonal realism and rural subjects would greatly influenced his approach to landscape painting following his return to Melbourne.

Roberts shared a studio with Richardson, and later with sculptor Bertram Mackennal, at 10 James Street in Haymarket. Richardson painted 'The last of the flock', an incident in Australia 1882 while also studying at the Royal Academy. This is a new acquisition and will be on display for the first time. The subject pre-empts the elevation of Australia's sheep industry and pastoral life in nationalist works painted by Roberts, Streeton and Frederick McCubbin over the following decades. As a young man, Richardson formed close associations with these artists, taking classes at the National Gallery School with Roberts and McCubbin, with whom he successfully petitioned for the establishment of life-drawing classes at the school. In 1881, in common with Roberts, he travelled to London and enrolled in the Royal Academy's six-year course.

'The last of the flock', the title drawn from a 1789 poem by English Romantic William Wordsworth, evokes the hardships endured by early settlers working in the Australian pastoral industry. The sheep farmer is presented as an ennobled figure strikingly silhouetted against the silvery mist of early morning. A shot dingo lies dead at his feet, observed carefully by a faithful collie. Crows descend on the slain sheep, while a single lamb turns his head to the farmer, bleating. The subject was well established in the European canon, and in 1880 the National Gallery of Victoria purchased Anguish c 1878 by Danish artist August Friedrich Albrecht Schenck. Acquired before his departure for England, Richardson would certainly have known this painting of a ewe standing protectively over the dead body of her lamb, surrounded by a threatening circle of black crows.

On returning to Melbourne, Richardson exhibited three 'important pictures' at the 1889 Winter exhibition of the Victorian Artists Society to represent his eight years abroad. While a review in the weekly society paper Table Talk on 10 May noted a 'strong interest' in these allegorical works, it was hoped he would 'now turn his attention to a thoroughly Australian subject.' Yet the allegorical persisted. A number of his landscape studies painted in and around Melbourne were included in the 9 by 5 impression exhibition alongside his bronze and wax reliefs such as Wind 1889. The following year, he exhibited the celebrated bronze statuette The cloud 1890, the allegorical subject of which references Percy Bysshe Shelley's poem of the same name, which begins, 'I bring fresh showers for the thirsting flowers / From the seas and the streams'. Employing a sinuous Art Nouveau line, the woman's form curves over an upturned pitcher, pouring water over the 'thirsting flowers' at her feet.

Charles Conder Herrick's blossoms c 1888, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1969

While Richardson, like Mackennal, explored allegorical figures in the pure space of sculpture, Conder and Streeton located them within recognisably Australian landscapes. Conder's Hot wind 1889, completed in the same year he exhibited his celebrated '9 by 5' impressions such as Herrick's blossoms c 1888 and Riddells Creek 1889, is the most important of his allegorical compositions. It evokes the intense, bright light and searing heat of an Australian summer in drought. The bleached, shimmering tonality of the foreground and passages of parched cliff face announce the Antipodean location. In Streeton's Ariadne 1895, a coastal landscape bathed in pure white sunshine is divided by a ribbon of brilliant blue. The calligraphic sway of trees frame the figure, with shadows reaching across the sand, suggesting a landscape in sympathy with the classical Greek narrative of forsaken love to which the title alludes. (The NGA is currently seeking donations toward the acquisition of Ariadne through its Members Acquisition Fund.)

In Australia, Roberts, Conder and Streeton pursued a fashionably bohemian lifestyle of artists' camps and sketching tours. Their aim was to engage the purity of the bush and pastoral districts, working within landscapes seemingly untainted by the encroaching modernity of developing cities. Roberts's A Sunday afternoon picnic at Box Hill and Boat on a beach, Queenscliff, both painted around 1887, represent an escape from the modernising world and emphasise the importance placed on working outdoors to capture truth in nature. Boat on a beach presents a quiet, unaffected scene of a woman perched on the edge of a blue couta wedged above the reach of high tide. Horizontal bands of sand and the scrubby grass-covered hill lead our eye toward a pattern of wooden fencing rails and thicket of ti-trees. Streeton's 'Above us the great grave sky' 1890 was painted during the last of two summers spent in the company of Roberts and Conder at Eaglemont, near Heidelberg. This twilight view looks across the valley and the Yarra River winding its way from the distant Dandenong Ranges. Two figures, reclining in the grass, contemplate the rising moon.

It was also at Eaglemont that Streeton completed one of his most celebrated Impressionist landscapes, Golden summer, Eaglemont 1889. When exhibited at the Victorian Artists Society's Winter exhibition of 1889, the Table Talk reviewer on 10 May applauded his 'sense of colour,' continuing, 'He paints summer effects as if he loved the country, and had set himself to idealise even the most commonplace scenery.' In response to the earlier studio viewing, the Table Talk reviewer on 26 April proclaimed it 'an excellent illustration of the scenery around Heidelberg; a long undulating plain, which, lying in all the glory of a warm sunny afternoon, appears as a stretch of golden meadow land, while in the distance the purple shadows are fast creeping over the hills, and lurking in little patches among the hollows of the ground.'

Arthur Streeton Golden summer, Eaglemont 1889, National Gallery of Australia, purchased 1995

While Streeton was encouraged by the response, there was for artists of his generation a belief that success would be measured in Europe- and the Royal Academy and Paris Salon remained the most significant markers of that success. Having already 'hung on the line' at the Royal Academy, Golden summer received a 'mention honourable' at the Paris Salon in 1892. Five years later, at the age of twenty-nine, Streeton left Sydney for London with the aim of establishing himself in the artistic capital of the British Empire.

Not all artists of the National Gallery School would venture abroad. Jane Sutherland, like her friend McCubbin, established her artistic practice in Melbourne and was actively involved in the Victorian Artists Society's governing body and the male-dominated Buonarotti Club. One of the first professionally trained women artists in Australia, she shared a studio at Grosvenor Chambers on Collins Street where Roberts worked following his return to Australia. She joined McCubbin and Roberts on painting trips to Box Hill in 1886, producing quiet atmospheric scenes of rural life. In A cabbage garden 1896, her palette has become bolder and the wind wisps that curl across the sky echo the harvest of these leafy rosettes in vibrant blue, green and violet. The painting reflects the influence of Jean-Francois Millet via the work of Fox, who also had a studio at Grosvenor Chambers. While painted in Melbourne, the white bonnet of Sutherland's female worker recalls Millet's French peasants and, perhaps more directly, the work references Fox's 1889 painting of a cabbage field punctuated by the black and white of Breton women.

In the final decades of the nineteenth century, the development of Australian art was played out both within Australia and in the artistic centres of Britain and Europe. For those artists who began their careers in Melbourne, whether they journeyed abroad or remained at home, the layered influences of Impressionism, Naturalism and Aestheticism saw close attention paid to modern life. In a period that also witnessed the growth of nationalism in Australia, leading up to Federation in 1901, these layers were also bound to a distinctly Australian response to the landscape. Alongside quieter notes of the allegorical and decorative, history was declared in the present.

Emma Kindred, Curator, Nineteenth-Century Australian Art, National Gallery of Australia
Artonview, Winter 2017

Web Link: Australian Impressionism


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