Throughout the 1880s and '90s, a movement of art, influenced by the international impressionism trend, developed in Australia. Up to that time, depictions of Australia had been primarily rendered in a distinctly English pastoral style, creating a false impression that Australia resembled England. The artists in the new movement did appropriate the European plein air painting techniques and everyday subject matter of the French Impressionists, but the paintings they produced were unique in portraying the distinctive landscape and brilliant light of Australia as it actually was.
"For many decades, Australia was seen by many in terms of what it wasn't. It wasn't a soft and gentle land; the trees and plants weren't the same; and it wasn't a landscape that had been farmed and tamed for centuries. To the eyes of many new immigrants, Australia was lacking in that it did not have the attributes of the countries they had left. Everything about Australia was different and as artists struggled with these new and often harsh vistas, they painted what they knew, and knew they could paint well. As a result, the Australia of the early nineteenth century is often one of park-like green hills and bubbling streams bathed in a gentle light." - australia.gov.au
At the same time, the Australian government was actively encouraging artists to celebrate and portray their country more realistically. This nationalistic sentiment was growing in strength as the country approached the centenary of white settlement there.
'We cannot ... urge too strongly ... how requisite it is that we should as soon as possible fill our National Gallery with representative works of our artists and our nation, its early historical scenes, and pictures of the true rude life that must have and did exist in the early days of the colony.' - 'Tusque', The National Gallery: 'On the Line' Australian Magazine, July 1886
Near Heidelberg Oil 1890 Arthur Streeton
The movement became known at the Heidelberg School, a somewhat confusing moniker coined by an art critic. Heidelberg refers to an area in Australia in the bushland around Melbourne, where many of the artists painted. The term was first used in a review of two of the artists' work in 1891:
"Both these artists (Walter Withers and Arthur Streeton) are of that practice which may be called, for purposes of distinction, the 'Heidelberg School' for their work has been done chiefly in this attractive suburb, where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting." - Sidney Dickinson in The Australian Critic, 1891 Use of the term later expanded to include many more impressionist landscape painters working in other areas of the country.
Many of the most well-known Australian Impressionists spent time painting together at artists' camps they shared in areas around Melbourne, including Heidelberg. Some of the artists ventured further into the outback and areas near Sydney. Richmond, a town near the Hawkesbury River and at the foot of the Blue Mountains was another area frequented by the plein air painters of the Heidelberg School.
Sirius Cove Oil 1890 Arthur Streeton
The Yarra Heidelberg Oil 1890 Charles Conder
Curlew Camp was an artists' camp on the eastern shore of Little Sirius Cove in Sydney. The camp was founded by Reuben Brasch sometime around 1890 as a weekend getaway. Brasch owned a department store in Sydney and manufactured clothing. Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts moved to Curlew Camp to paint, teaching art classes in nearby Sydney. The camp consisted of a half dozen tents with a dining tent and a dancing floor with a piano. Streeton wrote about the camp in a letter:
"I sit here in my tent and look across the little bay beneath to the hill beyond, all in massive purple shadow – right across which comes a beautiful mass of clematis and begonia creeper, the stem of a red gum sapling and a young wild cherry tree. Below a few feet is my box with mignonette opening its second set of leaves to the brilliant warmth of the sun which floods all the green and cheerful surroundings of our tent making it like a fairy’s bower. All the morning I’ve been wandering about the hill of bush behind our camp gathering flowers and delicate ferns to plant in our little summer house close by."
Coogee Beach was also a favorite painting spot for both Tom Roberts and Charles Conder.
Holiday Sketch at Coogee Beach Oil 1888 Tom Roberts
Tom Roberts (1856 - 1931)
Shearing the Rams Oil 1890 Tom Roberts
Roberts was born in England and kept close ties to his birth country. His family relocated to Australia when Roberts was 13 years old. He worked as a photographer's assistant and studied art at night, returning to England to study art full-time for three years when he was 25 years old at the Royal Academy. Roberts also returned to England to join the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I.
Roberts became friends with Frederick McCubbin, another artist and, like many of the artists of this period, painted in artists camps with him. One of his most well-known paintings is Shearing the Rams, a theme celebrating the work of Australian workers in the wool industry.
Tom Roberts working on The Big Picture The Big Picture 1903 Oil
The Big Picture was painted to commemorate the first sitting of the House of Parliament of Australia and is still displayed at Parliament House in Canberra.
Frederick McCubbin (1855 - 1917)
McCubbin was born in Melbourne to a Scottish father and English mother. He worked at various jobs while studying art at the National Gallery of Victoria's School of Design and the Victorian Academy of the Arts. His focus and the subject for which he became most well known was the Australian bush country. He taught at the School of Design at the National Gallery and the National Gallery of Victoria Art School.
"I fancy large canvases all glowing and moving in the happy light, and others bright, decorative and chalky and expressive of the hot, trying winds and the slow, immense summer." - Frederick McCubbin in a letter to Tom Roberts
A Ti-Tree Glade 1897 Oil Frederick McCubbin
Afterglow 1912 Oil Frederick McCubbin
Violet and Gold 1911 Oil Frederick McCubbin
Arthur Streeton (1867 - 1943)
Streeton was born to English parents who met on their voyage from England to Australia. He painted the area around Heidelberg from a rural abandoned homestead that he had taken "artistic possession" of, called "Eaglemont". Many other artists visited and painted with Streeton from Eaglemont. Streeton developed a strong reputation in Australia. His paintings remain some of the most collectible of the Australian impressionist artists. He also spent time painting in England and in Venice. Streeton joined the Royal Army Medical Corps during World War I. He was made an Australian Official War Artist working mostly in France. Streeton return to Australia after the war, building a house and continuing to paint. He was knighted in 1937 for his service to the arts.
Golden Summer Eaglemont 1889 Oil Arthur Streeton
"I sit on our hill of gold ... the wind seems sunburnt and fiery ... north-east the very long divide is beautiful, warm blue far far away all dreaming and remote ... Yet as I sit here in the upper circle surrounded by copper and gold and smile joy ... all the light, glory and quivering brightness passes slowly and freely before my eyes ..." - Arthur Streeton on the view from Eaglemont
"The purple noon's transparent might " 1896 Oil Arthur Streeton
During the time that Streeton spent painting in the Richmond area he created The purple noon's transparent might. The title is taken from a poem by Percy Shelley. Streeton wrote about painting it:
"The glory of the river and plain spread before me. Far below were the tops of river-oaks, and water like the blue of a black opal. The brightness of noon, the power of deep blue, the flies, and the temperature now 108 degrees, wrought me to a pitch of excitement the atmosphere 10 degrees higher than my own temperature crept round my face like a flame; and it seemed like working in a fiery trance. I paused and found that in two hours two thirds of my canvas was covered with paint, I had stamped my big impression upon it, I had made my picture."
Cremorne Pastoral 1895 Oil Arthur Streeton
Charles Conder (1868 - 1909)
Charles Conder moved to Australia at the age of seventeen, having grown up in both England and India. He worked for an uncle in Sydney as a land surveyor upon arrival, but left the job after two years to become an artist for the Illustrated Sydney News. He met and painted with artists Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts. Later in his life, Conder returned to Europe befriending Henri Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde and Aubrey Beardsley. He died at a young age of tertiary syphilis.
Under a Southern Sun 1890 Oil Charles Conder
Impressionists' Camp 1889 Oil Charles Conder
Jane Sutherland (1853 - 1928)
Jane Sutherland was an American born in New York to Scottish parents. The family emigrated to Sydney in 1864 later moving to Melbourne, where her father taught drawing for the Department of Education and exhibited his own work through the Victorian Academy of Arts. Jane was one of the few women artists associated with the Heidelberg School and was a pioneer of the plein air movement in Australia. She worked hard to promote the advancement and professional standing of women artists. She studied at the National Gallery of Design, painting under Frederick McCubbin, Eugene von Guerard and George Folingsby. Sutherland was one of the first women members of the Buonarotti Society. She and artist May Vale were the first women elected as Councillors of the Victorian Artists' Society. She worked alongside her male contemporaries of the Hiedelberg School in the outlying rural districts around Melbourne of Alphington, Templestowe and Box Hill.
Obstruction, Box Hill 1887 Oil Jane Sutherland
Walter Withers (1854 - 1914)
Withers was born in England and emigrated to Australia in 1882. He worked on a farm for 18 months before moving to Melbourne to work as a draftsman for a printing firm. During that period he produced numerous black and white portraits of well-known individuals for reproduction. In 1887, Withers went to Europe, married and settled in Paris, attending the Academie Julian. Later that year he returned to Australia, having been commissioned to produce a series of drawings for Edmund Finn's The Chronicles of Early Melbourne.Withers eventually settled in Eaglemont on the Yarra River, where he met and painted with Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and many other leading artists.
In 1897 Withers was awarded the first Wynne Prize at Sydney for his picture, "The Storm"
The Storm 1896 Oil Walter Withers
After the Heat of the Day 1891 Oil Walter Withers
These are some of the more well-known artists of the Heidelberg School. More information is available at: australia.gov.au. All images used are in the public domain.
Throughout the 1880s and 90s and beyond, a movement of art, influenced by the international impressionism trend, developed in Australia. Up to this moment, depictions of Australia had been primarily rendered in a distinctly English pastoral style, creating a false impression that Australia resembled England. The artists in this movement did appropriate the European plein air painting techniques and everyday subject matter of the French Impressionists, but the paintings they produced were unique in portraying the distinctive landscape and harsh light of Australia as it actually was.
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