Australian Impressionism
Characteristics of Heidelberg School of Landscape Painting.

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The Purple Noon's Transparent Might
(1896) National Gallery of Victoria.
By Arthur Streeton. A masterpiece
that clearly demonstrates Streeton's
credentials as one of Australia's
best landscape artists.

For details of movements and
styles, see: History of Art Timeline.

For a guide, see: Definition of Art.

Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900)
Origins, Characteristics, Landscape/Genre Painters


Melbourne Origins
The First Real Australian Art Movement
Artist-Camps and Plein-Air Landscape Painting
Tom Roberts (1856-1931)
Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)
Charles Conder (1868-1909)
David Davies (1864-1939)
Walter Withers (1854-1914)
Fred McCubbin (1855-1917)
An Intense Moment of Australian Art
Australian Impressionist Painters

Art in Australia Series
Aboriginal Art (c.50,000 BCE onwards)
Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880)
Australian Impressionism (c.1886-1900)
Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-60)

The Pioneer (1904)
National Gallery of Victoria.
One of McCubbin's
greatest genre paintings.

Going Home (1889)
By Chales Conder.
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
Perfectly captures evening twilight.

Melbourne Origins

In the wake of Australian Colonial Painting (c.1780-1880), the first significant landmark in Australian art is the "9 x 5 Impression Exhibition" held in a Melbourne saleroom in 1889. It was then, in the collection of little sketches, painted chiefly on the seasoned wood of cigar boxes and measuring nine by five inches, that for the first time a body of art appeared which was distinctly and consciously Australian. Most of the little "impressions" were the work of three almost unknown young painters: Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Charles Conder (1868-1909). Fred McCubbin (1855-1917) was also represented and several less important enthusiasts attracted to the new movement. This group became known as the Heidelberg School, after the rural artist-camps which they set up in the locality of Heidelberg, to the east of Melbourne.

Art was a matter of little account in Australia in those days - the French movement "Impressionism" being known to only a small number of artists - and Melbourne was mildly startled by the exhibition, which by dint of serving tea, supplying musical entertainment and publicising the scathing criticism meted out by the press, managed to excite considerable curiosity and achieve quite a few sales. The catalogue, with cover design by Charles Conder (a collector's piece today), bore the legend, or manifesto: "When you draw, form is the important thing, in painting the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour". (Jean-Leon Gerome: 1824-1904).


Thus the Australian "Impressionists" got their name - a misnomer at once as inaccurate and as apt as the "Pre-Raphaelites" or the "Fauves". For Australian Impressionism has little in common with the Impressionist landscape painting of Claude Monet (1840-1926), Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) and Camille Pissarro (1830-1903), with their theories of the spectrum and the vibration of light and colour. (For more, see: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.) The Frenchmen were still fighting their own battles and the effect of French Impressionism was not felt in Australia for more than another generation. Colour reproductions were practically nonexistent; Australia was still far to travel and many artists who made the journey back to Europe were absorbed into the more active art world of Paris, and Australia gained nothing from their experience.

Gerome's dictum, had at second-hand by Tom Roberts from some students met casually in Spain, was in fact the basis of Australian Impressionism, the flint that sparked off the first School of Australian painting. Although Roberts and his group used a characteristically loose style of brushwork, which gives their pictures an 'impressionistic' appearance, they were too attached to naturalism and the more realistic Barbizon School of landscape painting to embrace full-blown French Impressionism. Interestingly, their work is closer to the Dutch Hague School of Painting, rather than Monet or Renoir.

NOTE: For an explanation of how Impressionist painting led to abstract art, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

There had of course been painters washed up on these shores since the founding of the colony one hundred years before - convicts, officials, soldiers, explorers, and, for one reason or another, an occasional professional artist. They painted with alert, clinical observation, or at best as visitors, and even the most talented of those who settled here - John Glover, Conrad Martens, and Louis Buvelot - yearned for the more ordered countryside of Europe, and in their work remained true to traditionally accepted organisation of landscape, known tree forms, and the sombre, conservative palette.

By the 1880s the fetters were well cast aside and a young, vigorous people, made strong by endurance, was fast becoming conscious of itself, its powers, its rights, its native land. There was a ferment of nationalism, and as always the writers, the artists had their sensitive ears to the ground.



The First Real Australian Art Movement

But how to give visual expression to this burgeoning love of country, to the awareness of the individual character of Australia's bushland and its way of life, which became at once the more fascinating and the more intractable to the bonds of academism, the more closely it was studied, the more dearly it was loved, the deeper it was penetrated? It was at this point that Tom Roberts, who has been truly called the father of Australian painting, returned from a few years in Europe, alight with enthusiasm for the new, revolutionary trends. In plein-air painting, truth to nature, colour set free from the shrouds of bitumen, he was convinced he had found the key to Australian landscape. He lost no time, both in Melbourne and Sydney, in spreading the doctrine and in gathering about him the men who were for the first time to write the name of Australia in the history of art - Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Walter Withers and David Davies.

In the beginning, with Roberts and McCubbin, the influence of Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84) - allied to a sympathetic humanity, firm, broad brush stroke and muted 19th century colour palette - is most powerfully apparent. But as these artists, each in his own way, became more and more absorbed in the eccentricities of shape and form, colour and atmosphere of the landscape, each evolved a technique suited to his ends.

Artist Camps and Plein-Air Landscape Painting

They were all very different, these progenitors of Australian painting. While Roberts was unquestionably the mainspring of the movement, all brought something individual and personal which added to the general sum. Roberts pointed the ideal and the way; Fred McCubbin, "The Prof", with his sincerity, sound craftsmanship and feeling for the human story, kept their feet on the ground; Arthur Streeton, "Smike", youthfully impressionable, volatile, romantic, brought brilliance and sparkle; and the rare colour and almost femininely elegant sense of decoration of Charles Conder, "Kay", had some impact on even "Bulldog" Roberts himself. But it was the artists' camps, a life close to the earth, dedicated to art, that welded these painters into the School of Australian Impressionism.

Possibly because Australians were an unsophisticated people and the open-air life a "natural" in any case, there has never been such a complete abandonment to the "plein air" principles of landscape painting. Armed with their paintbrushes, easels and tubes of colour pigments, they pitched their tents, or camped in deserted homesteads, and gave themselves up to a life of outdoor oil painting, from the first glancing light through grey-green saplings, through crackling heat of noon, till the welcome shadows of evening. At night the billy was boiled, chops and potatoes cooked in the embers; pipes came out and talk, raking the universe but coming always back to art, eddied, with tang of gum leaves, round the camp fire. There was laughter and music too - Tom Roberts would get out his tin whistle, McCubbin would raise a mellow voice - and in all the gay camaraderie there was always an exciting tomorrow, another day to absorb, probe and paint the uncharted Australian landscape.

Art schools, art galleries, art societies were dreary and had little to offer in those days and most of the eager young artists and art students were attracted to the camps - at Box Hill, at Eaglemont and Chartresville in the Yarra Valley, and at Sirius Cove on Sydney Harbour—drifting in and out. All, scattered in after life around the world, recalled nostalgically the zest for life and art that filled the days and nights of the camps of the 1890s.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)

Tom Roberts, as can be seen in this exhibition, where for the first time outside, or even within, Australia the cream of his major works has been brought together, was not only the initiator of Australian Impressionism, but also its greatest exponent. In portrait art - his main source of livelihood - he has rarely been equalled and never surpassed for charm and sensitive characterisation. Nevertheless, for some years, both prior to his death in 1931 and afterwards, he was somewhat less regarded than either Charles Conder, most of whose life was spent back in England and France, and who achieved a European reputation, or Sir Arthur Streeton, who in later life gained considerable fame and fortune through his painting.

Roberts was at the time the acknowledged leader, a leadership based on conviction, seniority, greater knowledge and that drive and tenacity of purpose which earned him the nick-name of "Bulldog" among his friends and associates. It was a selfless leadership, concerned not only with painting itself, but fighting for the status of the artist in the community. Roberts was not only responsible for putting leaven into the half-baked art societies of Victoria, but also in Sydney was instrumental in forming, and was first president of the Society of Artists which, certainly until the advent of the Contemporary Art Society, with its inter-state affiliations, was the most powerful and selective art organisation in Australia.

Throughout his life Tom Roberts had need of his bull-dog qualities, for nothing came to him the easy way and he had a hard fight to establish himself as an artist. At thirteen, having emigrated from Dorchester, England, to Melbourne with his widowed mother and younger sister and brother, Tom was working for a surburban photographer, at night doing leather work to help out the family budget. As his position improved, he began to attend art classes at night.

His first teacher was the aging, sensitive Swiss artist, Louis Buvelot (1814–88), to whom he always referred with respect and affection, and who must be regarded as the forerunner of Impressionism in Australia, for he painted, always an orderly landscape, with freshness and tenderness. Next, at the Melbourne School of Design, Roberts studied under Thomas Clark, who gave himself a footnote in Australian art history by recognising Tom's talent and encouraging him to go abroad for further study. This necessitated much scrimping and saving, drawing for newspapers, copying Victorian masterpieces.

In 1881 Tom Roberts went to London and, supporting himself with newspaper work, spent some time at the Royal Academy Schools and made painting trips to France and Spain. It was during the Spanish journey, undertaken with some bohemian artist friends, that Roberts fell in with Barrau and Casas, the students of Gerome, whose doctrine of plein air painting and tonal values in strict truth to nature, was not only the turning point in Roberts's life as an artist, but also the most potent influence on art in Australia.

It was soon after his return to Melbourne that Roberts, with Frederick McCubbin, an erstwhile fellow student at the Melbourne Gallery School, pitched his tent not far from Box Hill, now a populous city, then a village surrounded by unspoilt bushland, a sylvan spot by a creek, as Roberts remembered from his youth. This was the first of those artists' camps which produced the masterpieces of the "golden age" of Australian painting. Here for the first time the two artists put into practice the revolutionary principles Roberts had brought back with him from overseas.

Tom Roberts believed that by stating directly and faithfully an impression experienced at one moment, in one place, making art a perfect expression of this experience, it became art for all times, all places. This immediacy of impression he sought and succeeded in retaining whilst being at the same time a perfectionist in matters of subject detail and craftsmanship. It is a noteworthy fact that Tom Roberts's paintings - unlike much of Streeton's work - are as fresh and in as good condition today as when they were painted. There was nothing slap-dash in his handling of his medium, which was always treated with as much humility and respect as the subject or idea that engaged him.

For accuracy of detail in his big pictures Roberts had an almost Pre-Raphaelite obsession. For "Shearing the Rams", for instance, he lived with the shearers, made innumerable sketches, set up his canvas in the woolshed, and the resultant picture, while being primarily an artistic unity, is a most painstaking record of that way of life at that time. Possibly it was his photographer's background that made this careful realism at once necessary and easy to Tom Roberts. For "Bailed Up" he got hold of the driver concerned in the actual incident depicted, and had a platform erected in a tree to ensure the right angle for his composition.

His realism, however, unlike the Pre-Raphaelites', was never static. He never, whatever the scale of his painting, lost "the impression", the intense awareness of the passing moment captured. In "The Breakaway", against the weary, red earth, the ragged trees and interminably blue outback sky, the dust cloud is already lifting from the horses' hooves, the jackeroo is already recovering from his dashing swoop, to wheel off again in his effort to turn the idiotic, stampeding sheep.

This insistence on the virtue of the thing truly seen, Roberts conveyed to most of his followers. McCubbin for his "Bush Burial" actually dug a little grave near his home at Blackburn and his wife posed as the bereaved mother, alone with the enclosing bush. Streeton, too, in "Smike to Bulldog", the prolific letters (edited by R. H. Croll) which record for ever the value of this artists' friendship, tells how he walked a mile up hill, crawled along hot, dusty rock ledges, laden with all his painting gear, to paint "Fire's on", one of his more important early canvases.

Today with the concentration by Australian artists on the strange, remote vastness of the barren interior, it tends to be forgotten that in their time and under existing conditions, with the transport then available, Roberts and Streeton were just as eager and determined to press into the outback and paint the core of Australia as the "outback discoverers" of today, who with planes, trains, their jeeps, iceboxes and radios, are really less adventurous and inconvenienced by the penetration of the very Centre itself. The thousands of miles involved in Australian travel - even between capital cities in some instances - held much more hazard in the 1890s. Note: For an explanation of some of the great works of Australian Impressionism, please see: Analysis of Modern Paintings (1800-2000).

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)

After Box Hill, in 1886, Roberts and McCubbin rented a cottage at Mentone, on Port Phillip Bay, and it was here on the rocks one morning Roberts came across a young man sketching and was so impressed with his work he invited him to join the party. This was nineteen-year-old Arthur Streeton, at that time a lithographer's apprentice, avidly anxious to paint, at loss for instruction and direction. Streeton tried the Gallery School, found it frustrating with its dead-as-a-dodo ideas, and left after a few lessons.

The following summer he joined the older artists in their camp at Box Hill, and under the influence of his new friends his art blossomed into an early maturity. It was Streeton's vision of the washed golds and blue distances, embodied in his early canvases of the Yarra Valley, that was to characterise Australian landscape painting for almost forty years, and indeed still has its devotees.

Encouraged by the sale of a few pictures, Streeton abandoned his job to devote his life to painting, and it was he who found the old deserted house at Eaglemont, most famous of all the camps, and obtained permission to camp in it. "After supping at the village," Streeton wrote, describing his first night at Eaglemont, "I laboured up the hill with a large swag of canvases and paints and camped in one of the empty rooms. I lay on the floor in my clothes, my boots for a pillow, and I had no company except my pipe, a bottle of wine, and a candle. About this time I met Conder, who had come over from Sydney, and I invited him and Roberts to join me. We soon made beds from saplings and flour sacks and painted luxuriously and successfully for two summers."

Arthur Streeton was undoubtedly the most brilliant technician of the group. He was almost wholly self-taught, and there is sheer virtuosity in the hand that at twenty could achieve a canvas such as "Golden Summer", which, when taken to Paris by Conder in 1892, won Australia's first Honourable Mention at a Paris Salon.

At that time Streeton was inspired by a poetic lyricism, an exultant joy in nature and living. In later years he was to lose this and become the victim of his own extraordinary facility. The closely, almost jealously observed subtleties of his early work, when a poet's heart dictated to an eager brush, later lapsed into an easy fluency that made him his own first imitator. There is something of a parallel between the work of Streeton and that of Samuel Palmer, who in the days of youth and idealistic frugality, produced some of the most inspired romantic naturalism in British painting and in later years descended to an empty re-iteration of the currently popular recipes for picture-making.

Streeton's very lack of training was to a certain extent an advantage to him. He had no pre-conceived ideas to break down; he quickly saw and seized the freedom and strength of the new approach Roberts and McCubbin daringly and deliberately adopted, and Australian born, knowing and loving only the Australian light and landscape, he found in himself the power to set down the "spacious, half-veiled vistas" of a gold and blue landscape that "basked full three quarters of the year in sunlight".

Sensitive notations like "The Hot Road", "The Selector's Hut", "The Road to Templestowe" evidence the intensity and individuality of vision which at the Paris Salon of 1909 won for Streeton a gold medal with his large canvas "Australia Felix".

Streeton broke a great deal of ground for Australian art, both in winning recognition abroad and in overcoming indifference at home. His one-man exhibition in Melbourne in 1898 was the first ever held in Australia, and his 1907 exhibition really started the first boom in Australian art. He was the first official war artist and, of course, he was knighted. All this at the time was of immense importance in giving status to art in Australia.


Charles Conder (1868-1909)

Charles Conder was also recruited to the group by Roberts, who had met him casually on a trip to Sydney, clinched the friendship in a three-hour conversation in a wineshop by the harbourside, and persuaded the young man to join the Melbourne painters.

Conder, a gifted youth, born in England of French ancestry, was at this time twenty, one year younger than Arthur Streeton. He had been five years in Australia, mostly working with surveying parties around New South Wales. Convinced of his vocation, Conder returned to Sydney, got employment drawing for the "Illustrated Sydney News", and attended night classes run by the Royal Art Society. Before meeting with Roberts he had already won some recognition, his "Departure of S.S. Orient" having been purchased by the Sydney Gallery. This picture, one of the largest of Conder's Australian paintings, had those personal and subtle qualities of colour and composition which distinguished his work throughout life, and which were - as no doubt Roberts expected - an inspirational influence on the Melbourne group. Particularly Streeton owed much in many of his most lovely and lyrical panels to the association with Conder's eclectic sense of decoration, his genius for linear emphasis. Conder's sojourn with the group was ended when he left for Paris in 1890. He achieved a wider fame and his work, alone among the Australian Impressionists, is familiar in London and European collections. There is no doubt he learnt, as well as gave, much during his few years in Australia, and he carried always happy memories of the halcyon days at Eaglemont. In such lyrics as "The Farm, Richmond", and "Springtime, 1888" those familiar with his later painting will find that exquisite delicacy of vision which was the very essence of his art.

David Davies (1864-1939)

Of the many other artists associated with the camps Walter Withers and David Davies were in many ways most closely linked and most significant and personal in their contributions to the movement. David Davies, though Australian born, studied not only in the Melbourne Schools, but at St. Ives, Cornwall, and in Paris before joining the brethren at Eaglemont. He was in technique closest to the French Impressionist painters and after the few brief and fruitful years in Victoria he returned to spend most of his life in Europe, becoming an R.O.I, and a well-known exhibitor at the Paris Salon and the Royal Academy. His Australian fame rests chiefly on such subdued, nostalgic landscapes of quiet crepuscule as "Moonrise", and the seascapes painted in completely controlled broken touches of vibrating colour.

Walter Withers (1854-1914)

Walter Withers, an Englishman, was thirty-five when he joined the campers at Eaglemont. Nick-named "The Colonel" for his orderly habits, Withers had a preference for orderliness in landscape also, and as a painting ground he never forsook the nearer rural districts around Melbourne. These, particularly the street scenes of early Heidelberg, he painted with a warm and sympathetic directness, seeking to state, as did Tom Roberts, the unqualified impression. He settled at Heidelberg, and it is in such Impressionist paintings as "Tranquil Winter" and "Early Morning, Heidelberg" where he sets down with affectionate fidelity the light and atmosphere of calm and pleasant Australian days, he is seen at his very best. It was Withers who discovered the old stone mansion of Chartresville, where the camps carried on after Roberts, Streeton and Conder had departed, and he, with McCubbin, who was also content with life and teaching in Melbourne, provided the link with the big three, and the inspiration of a new generation of Australian artists.

Fred McCubbin (1855-1917)

Of all these painters Frederick McCubbin is the one who is not fully given his due. There was nothing sensational about McCubbin. He was the ballad-maker who told of pioneer struggle and suffering. He had not the brilliance of Streeton, the genius of Conder, the extraordinary drive and veracity of Roberts, but more than anyone else he captured what Roberts called "the witchery" of the bush. The density of grey-green foliage, the sinuous saplings that emerge and elude, Rima-like, in a purpling haze, these are a presence - as the bush is a presence - in such canvases as "The Lost Child", "Down on His Luck", which cannot be dismissed as merely sentimental, but are an expression of sincere sentiment, thoughtfully planned, knowledgeably painted. McCubbin, with Roberts, showed the way, finding in Australian life fit subject matter for the Australian painter, tackling for the first time with success the large scale genre painting.

An Intense Moment of Australian Art

A couple of decades covered the painting period of most of the important canvases of Australian Impressionism, a brief moment in time.

Conder felt this when after return to Europe he wrote to Tom Roberts: "Nothing can exceed the pleasures of that last summer when I fancy all of us lost the ego somewhat of our natures in looking at what was Nature's best art and ideality. Give me one summer again with yourself and Streeton - the same long evenings, songs, dirty plates, and the last pink skies. But those things don't happen do they and what's gone is over."

In effect it is not gone, and as long as these canvases last, it is never gone. In this much Tom Roberts was right: whatever developments, whatever turns and twists artistic expression may take, the Australian Impressionists painted so intensely of one time, one place, that their work has become art for all times, all places. And this, of course, is true of all national art movements and has given character to the art of all nations.


Australian Impressionist Painters

Charles Conder (1868-1909)
Born in London. Spent his childhood and some of his youth in India. Arrived in Sydney in 1883 where he worked in illustration before going to Melbourne in 1888. During the seven years he spent in Australia he was closely associated with Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Fred McCubbin. He then went to London and made a reputation, both in Europe and America, his work being represented in many Galleries.

David Davies (1864-1939)
Born at Ballarat, Victoria. Studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School. In 1892 went to Paris to continue his studies and then worked in Cornwall. Returned to Australia in 1894 and remained for several years, during which he produced his finest Australian work. The remainder of his life was spent in England, where he exhibited occasionally at the Royal Academy, New English Art Club and Paris Salon.

Fred McCubbin (1855-1917)
Bom in Melbourne. Studied at the Artisans' School of Design and at the National Gallery School, Melbourne. Was associated with Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, a group of artists who contributed to the foundation of what has become known as the Australian school of landscape painting. Drawing master, National Gallery School, Melbourne, 1886-1917. Visited Europe 1907. Exhibited at Paris Salon.

Tom Roberts (1856-1931)
Born at Dorchester, England. Came to Australia with his widowed mother at the age of 13 and began earning his living in Melbourne as a photographer. Studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School and later at the Royal Academy Schools, London. Returned to Australia in 1885, bringing with him the Impressionist method, then in vogue in Europe. This had a profound effect on his fellow artists in Melbourne, particularly McCubbin, Conder and Streeton, with whom he formed a camp at Box Hill. Their efforts resulted in a more truthful rendering of the Australian scene and led to the foundation of a national school of landscape painting. Commissioned to paint the Opening of the first Federal Parliament by H.R.H. the Duke of Cornwall and York, Roberts returned to England in 1901 to complete this work, which contained more than 250 portraits and took two years to paint. While in London he exhibited at the Royal Academy, Paris Salon and other exhibitions. Served with the Royal Australian Medical Corps in London throughout the 1914-18 war. Returned to Australia in 1923. Roberts was a strong and inspiring personality and undoubtedly one of the most important figures in Australian art.

Arthur Streeton (1867-1943)
Born at Mount Duneed, Victoria. Studied at the Melbourne National Gallery School and joined the sketching camp which Fred McCubbin, Tom Roberts and Charles Conder had established at Box Hill. The high-keyed brilliance of the Australian landscape was realized for the first time in Streeton's "The Purple Noon's Transparent Might" and many other large pictures followed. In 1898 he settled in London, but returned to Australia in 1907. First Australian to be awarded Honourable Mention at Paris Salon (1892); gold medal, Paris Salon, 1909. Served in World War I in the Royal Australian Medical Corps. Commissioned as official war artist, 1918. Knighted 1937. Died at Olinda, Victoria.

Walter Withers (1854-1914)
Born in England. Studied at South Kensington School, London, and Julian's Academy, Paris. First visited Australia 1882. Returned later and established his studio at Heidelberg, Victoria, where he joined Streeton, Roberts and others. Awarded Wynne Prize for landscape, 1897 and 1900. A painter of the elements, whose work shows the influence of John Constable and David Cox.

Australian Impressionist paintings can be seen in all the best art museums in Australia, including: the Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney; the Queensland Art Gallery, Brisbane; National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; the Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide; the Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth; and the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, Hobart.

Next, see: Australian Modern Painting (c.1900-1960), whose greatest artists were Russell Drysdale (1912-81) and Sidney Nolan (1917-92).

• For more about Impressionist painting in Australia, see: Homepage.

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