By 1901 his first work was accepted for hanging in the Society of Artists Spring Show. But I don’t have any of his works until we come to small oil sketches of beaches around Sydney, 1912-4 very much in the tradition of the 9 x 5 Impressions shown at Buxton’s Rooms in Melbourne back in August 1889. He claimed his big influence was Tom Roberts and perhaps this is why Gruner was eventually thought of, particularly in Sydney, as the heir to the impressionist pastoral tradition of Australian art of the Heidelberg school.
28 x 34cm, Art Gallery of NSW
But there were two large differences. Heidelberg artists were Melbourne-educated in art, and worked in Heidelberg or other suburbs on the fringes of Melbourne. And Tom Roberts and his colleagues became famous in the late decades of the 19th century; Gruner became well known in art circles at least a full generation later.
I assume Gruner saw Louis Buvelot’s landscapes like Winter Morning Near Heidelberg 1866. Buvelot contributed to the openness of the countryside, so typically Australian in its colour, fauna, flora and weather. Buvelot’s dusty roads, trees and river banks must have delighted Gruner.
Gruner finally achieved national recognition just before WWI broke out. The Wave c1913 was a delightful summer image that Australians loved. This small canvas was divided into two thirds of sand and one third sea water, with only a small diagonal of swimmers and not too many colours. A charming image, with adults in summery street clothes and children in bathing suits. Of course beach scenes were very popular in Edwardian art, as we know from Phillips Fox and others. So Gruner was following a proud tradition.
Between 1915-20 Gruner focussed on landscape against the light. Painting in the open, he specialised in effects of early morning. In Summer Morning 1916, where the worker in the field laboured in the heat, the light in his canvases was crisp, clean and sharp. Spring Frost 1919 was my favourite. It was a delightful and small image, set in the early morning light, as were so many of Gruner’s art. People loved the man checking the cattle in the foreground; in the back ground you can see the family home, surrounded by trees with the light streaming through. And Morning in the Clearing 1920, with its dominant blue sky and irregular trees.
In 1923 Gruner visited Europe and was away for 2 years. Did he change, after he came home? Winter’s Morning was just as drowned in clear light, but this time the cold air of the new day hung in the air like a fine mist. The grass seemed to be still covered in moisture; the air out of the cows’ noses seemed to be steamy. The brushwork was thicker and faster, but he was still interested in the study of light.
Gruner, Morning Light, 1916
39 x 44 cm, Art Gallery of NSW
39 x 44 cm, Art Gallery of NSW
I cannot explain it. In 1916 and 1919 Australians were still used to gentle landscapes. But in inter-war era, the nation got used to a more assertive form of modernism that was self consciously avant-garde and more brutal in its approach. So how did this rather elusive, old fashioned and quiet landscape artist keep winning the Wynne Prize until WW2?
Gruner, Frosty Morning, 1932
36 x 44 cm, Private collection Melbourne
As late as the 1930s, Gruner was painting transient weather effects. Examine how he showed morning mist rising from the ground in Frosty Morning 1932. Warmed by the rising sun, the mist was suspended for a few magical moments before disappearing in the light of day. Elioth Gruner was undoubtedly the champion of mists and morning light.
Gruner died in 1939. He had often been referred to as the last of the Australian Impressionists but he was actually one of Australia's most popular transitional painters from WW1 to the 1920s and into the 1930s. Gruner's work is represented in the art galleries of all Australian galleries, especially the Art Gallery of NSW in his old home town, Sydney.
Note that Canberra Museum and Gallery’s senior curator of visual arts, Deborah Clark, felt Gruner’s fame has receded in the last 75 years. She viewed 200 of Gruner’s works from all over Australia and selected 70 of them to display in "Eliot Gruner: The Texture of Light". Canberra locals and visitors could see the works he produced while on his painting trips around Canberra, Cooma, NSW’s south coast and the Southern Highlands. At the end of June 2014, this exhibition travelled to the Newcastle Art Gallery.