The USA established the core of its identity as a nation around the Declaration of Independence from Britain in 1776. The founding fathers of the new nation were men of the Enlightenment. A century later, America was a great modern industrial nation that had absorbed many more influences, including romantic sensibility and religious revivalism. So by the time Church and his colleagues painted their luminous, sublime landscapes, America was already an established nation with a strong sense of its own identity. Their landscapes evoked westward expansion, and the discovery of the wilderness as a spiritual symbol.
In von Guerard’s time Australia had not yet reached a comparable level of national identity. Federation (1/1/1901) was still more than a generation away and post gold-rush colonial society was growing rapidly, with a boom in urban population. Australia was still transitioning from a collection of small colonies.
Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Credit: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Two decades later, in the 1880s, the Heidelberg School was named after an area in outer Melbourne where they started painting en plein air. Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Walters Withers (1854—1914) and sometimes Charles Conder (1868–1909) achieved a more confident sense of belonging. Admittedly drawing on naturalist and Impressionist ideas, they turned from inspiring subjects to farming settings. They sought to capture Australian life, the bush and the harsh sunlight that typified this country, and a more confident sense of settlement.
So why did the 2007 exhibition at the NGV, Australian Impressionism, call the most loved group of Australian artists “impressionists”, not “Heidelbergers”. The title of the 2007 exhibition reflected the view that Heidelberg School art was a credible Australian expression of the move towards naturalistic, plein-air painting that was popular in France, across Europe and in North America. Australians were part of internationalism and modernity!
Even as recently as 2016, the National Gallery of Australia sent Australia’s Impressionists Exhibition to London’s National Gallery. But British critics were puzzled. Streeton’s Fire’s On! (1891) was far from what they thought of as Impressionism, and Roberts’s A Break Away! (1891) could not be fitted into a European framework.
I created the same mix-up in this blog, absorbing the specifically Australian Heidelberg School into International Impressionism. “By 1901, Elioth Gruner’s first work was accepted for hanging in the Society of Artists Spring Show. See the small oil sketches of Sydney beaches 1912-4, very much in the tradition of the 9 x 5 Impressions shown at Buxton’s Rooms in Melbourne in Aug 1889. Gruner claimed his big influence was Roberts, possibly explaining why he was eventually seen as the heir to the Impressionist pastoral tradition of Australian art of the Heidelberg school”.
Now Allen is asking us to understand the specificity of C19th Australian art, distinguishing it from the superficially comparable Impressionism in Europe or the USA. Consider the times. In 1870-71, France was humiliatingly defeated in the Franco-Prussian War, Emperor Napoleon III abdicated, the republic was proclaimed and Paris was besieged by the German army. Then it was taken over by a radical movement called the Commune 1871, which was quickly put down in a bloody repression.
There was little sign of any of these traumatic events in the Impressionists’ art. French Impressionism was specifically reacting to historical circumstances by avoiding the pain. Their emphasis was on the personal, authentic experience of transient phenomena. In Claude Monet’s idyllic Le bassin d’Argenteuil (1872), the emphasis was on delight in the clearing clouds and dawn light. French Impressionism wanted nothing to do with nationalist themes.
The Heidelberg painters, on the other hand, were intimately connected to the nationalist spirit in pre-Federation Australia. For example see Roberts’s portrait of a young Australian woman, An Australian Native (1888). And Streeton’s Golden Summer Eaglemont (1889) was an early morning scene with long dawn shadows and moving shade. The emphasis here was about inhabiting this land. The rising sun covered the Australian land in typical baking hot heat.
Charles Conder was never as clearly focused on nationalist identity as Roberts or Streeton. But Conder still contributed to the theme of being at ease in a new land, in works like The Yarra Heidelberg (1890).
Australia’s Impressionists exhibition in London, 2017
Credit: National Gallery London
Fire’s On, 1891, by Arthur Streeton is on the right hand side. See it more clearly in Australian Bush Fires in Art
Of course these images had little in common with Monet and the other Impressionists’ palette. Rather than a high-keyed French palette, most of the pictures were tonal a la JAM Whistler. And they were less often studies of natural effects and more about modern life in Melbourne or in the rural outer suburbs, the booming economy and travel.
Allen made a couple of exceptions. The late paintings of McCubbin and turn of the century work by Emanuel Phillips Fox, Ethel Carrick Fox, John Peter Russell and Tudor St George Tucker were more directly taken from French Impressionism, but only because those artists had direct contact with the French. I agree. Phillips Fox had no major social or political theme, and the leisured life he depicted was not particularly Australian. Phillips Fox left Australia in 1887, before the inspiration of the Heidelberg artists’ camps had fully developed. And he was outside Australia during all the nationalist excitement leading up to Federation. Like Mary Cassatt, Auguste Renoir and Berthe Morisot, Phillips Fox’s long white Edwardian dresses captured the light and atmosphere of a summer's day anywhere.