10 October 2017

Australian Impress­ion­ist Art exhibition now on in Canberra - don't they mean Heidelberg art?

We were often told that Eugene von Guerard (1811–1901)’s Australian landscapes of the 1860s and 70s were indebted to the romantic art of Caspar David Friedrich, two generations earlier, or that there was an affinity between­ his work and that of Amer­ic­an landscape painters like Frederic Church. But Christopher Allen (The Australian 8th Oct 2017) wrote that if von Guerard’s style was dist­inct­ive, the sociocultural milieu within which he worked in Australia was also significantly differen­t from that of the Americans to whom he was sometimes comp­ar­ed.

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.

Bourke Street West, 1886, by Tom Roberts,
Credit: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 

Down on his luck. 1889, by Frederick McCubbin
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. 

Some of the loveliest pictures done by the Heidelbergers were the little oil sketches on cigar box lids that composed the fam­ou­s 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889. Note the use of the term Impression­ist here, as explained in Table Talk magazine in June 1889.

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 Gruners 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. 

The exhibition "Australian Impress­ion­ism" is open at the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra until the end of Oct


Joseph said...

If I had to select a painting that reflected typical national scenes or events, A break away! would be one of the first. Tom Roberts knew what he was doing.

bazza said...

I like some of the early US painters like Andrew Wyeth (and family) but I think the first major movement to be purely American was Abstract Expressionism.
Australian art always seems to be pleasantly different to European art. I like some of the work of Frederick McCubbin.
Do you know of this current Australian artist?:
Sorry it's off topic but she is a friend of a former Blogger who I met up with in Sydney.
(Incidentally, with regard to your previous post, there is a London Jewish Film Festival next month. We are going to the programme of 'shorts' because I am an extra in one of them!).
CLICK HERE for Bazza’s ambiguous Blog ‘To Discover Ice’

Hels said...


Agreed. Here is the test. If you had never seen Impressionist art before, and you were put in a gallery with 1000 paintings (999 from overseas, plus A break away!), would you be able to select the one Australian painting? Of course. The drab colours, parched ground, trees, mob of frantic sheep, drover on horseback and dust everywhere.

Hels said...


I too love Frederick McCubbin's work in the early decades, where the people who lived in the rural fringes of Melbourne were shown to live tough lives. Down on His Luck (above) was my favourite, but also Bush Burial, On the Wallaby Track, The Pioneer, Bush Idyll, Lost etc

I did not know Alex Snellgrove's work before, but the two beach scenes in your post are fine works of art. Thank you.

parnassus said...

Hello Hels,

I don't know why art produced in one country should be made to neatly fit categories used to describe art produced somewhere else. Each country has its own pattern of natural history, settlement, and development. The whole process seems rather Procrustean to me.
On the positive side, I had a fun time looking up the paintings of Roberts, McCubbin, and some of the other artists you mentioned. It would be worth a special trip to Canberra just to see the NGA's collection. I even saved one of McCubbin's paintings for a future post I am planning, although I don't seem to be on a huge production streak these days.


Hels said...


There is a great irony here. Art historians have labelled Australian art of the 1880s and 1890s as Impressionist presumably in order raise the reputation of Australian art and make it part of the late 19th century international art world. Yet Impressionism in France was originally vilified, mocked and avoided. Their lack of finish was referred to as childish daubs.

How quickly the art world changes.

I will love seeing your future post.