landscape, rural, urban, still life, narrative, interior, portrait
original, reproduction, oil paint, direct painting, plein-air, studio, traditional technique, realistic, Impressionism, sketch, tone, modelling, composition, painterly, atmospheric effects
History and culture
nationalism, national identity, centenary of European settlement, Federation, pioneer
Australian Impressionism presents the work of five artists: Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin, Jane Sutherland and Charles Conder. The exhibition focuses on the work that these artists made between1883 and 1897. During this time each of these artists played an important role in the development of an Impressionist style of painting and a distinctly national art in Australia. The five artists in the exhibition shared many ideas and interests and sometimes worked together.
Look at a selection of artworks by these artists.
Which artists/artworks are familiar? What do you already know about these artists/artworks, and how?
Which artists/artworks are less familiar? Why might these artists/artworks be less familiar?
What evidence can you see of the shared interests of the artists?
What evidence can you see of artists’ individual styles and interests?
The paintings of the Australian Impressionists provide a vivid picture of many aspects of Australian cultural and social life in the late nineteenth century.
Look at paintings of a range of subjects. What do these paintings reveal about the everyday life of the period, including the urban and rural environment, work, transport, leisure, fashion and people? (Students could look at different paintings in a ‘pair and share’ activity and present their observations to the class for this activity.)
What aspects of the life of the period are not represented in the paintings? Suggest why.
What value do the paintings have as historical documents? How do paintings compare with other historical documents in the information they present?
Compare and contrast one of the paintings by the Australian Impressionists with a photograph taken around the same time of the same scene (for example, a photograph of the view represented by Tom Roberts in Allegro con Brio, Bourke St West c. 1885–86).
What different information does each of these views provide?
Many of the buildings associated with ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ and/or the work of the Australian Impressionists are still standing today (e.g. Grosvenor Chambers, the GPO, the Exhibition Buildings, Princess Theatre, William Wardell’s ANZ Bank building).
Locate the buildings on a map and, if possible, try to visit some when you visit the exhibition.
Research the history and significance of one of the buildings and present a short illustrated talk about the building.
The years between 1883 and 1897, which are the focus of Australian Impressionism, encompass the centenary of European settlement in 1888, and the years leading up to Federation. The strong nationalistic spirit that prevailed at this time inspired an interest in the nation’s pioneering past and focused attention on the issue of national identity.
Although most people lived in the cities, it was the bush and bush life that were seen as uniquely Australian, and which exerted the most powerful influence on Australia’s emerging sense of national identity. This interest in the bush and bush life was reflected in the work of many poets, writers and artists of the period, including the Australian Impressionists.
Identify a range of factors that contributed to the growth of nationalism in the 1880s.
Why do you think the bush and bush life are often viewed as distinctly Australian, when most Australians live in cities?
Identify a range of works by the Australian Impressionists that you believe look distinctly Australian. What aspects of the paintings look distinctly Australian (consider subject matter, characters, colour and light)?
What ideas and values about Australian culture, history and identity do these paintings communicate? How are these ideas and values suggested in the paintings?
Did the ideas and values about Australia and Australian life, evident in these paintings, represent the views and experiences of all Australians when the paintings were made? Whose views and experiences were not represented, and why?
Are the ideas and values about Australia and Australian life evident in the paintings relevant to contemporary audiences? Explain.
Most of the paintings in Australian Impressionism are made with oil paint on canvas or board. Although the artists used a direct painting technique (see below) in many paintings, at times they also used more traditional methods.
Traditional oil painting techniques involve working with layers of thinned oil paint to gradually build up smooth areas of carefully blended tone and colour within clearly defined outlines. Artists can create very realistic effects working in this way. Artists usually work in the studio when they are using this technique.
Traditional painting techniques can be seen in some of the artworks of the Australian Impressionists, for example Old stables c. 1884 by Frederick McCubbin, and in the figures in the large-scale paintings created by McCubbin, such as Down on his luck 1889, and Shearing the rams 1890 by Tom Roberts
Identify paintings by the Australian Impressionists where you can see evidence of traditional painting techniques.
Discuss the visual effects that have been created using this technique.
Suggest why McCubbin and Roberts used traditional painting techniques for their large-scale paintings, such as Down on his luck and Shearing the rams. Consider, for example, how the subject matter, purpose and audience of these paintings may have influenced the artists’ approach.
Like many other artists of the period, theAustralian Impressionists also adopted a more modern, direct style of painting. This involved applying obvious strokes of colour and tone directly onto the surface of a painting to create an ‘impression’ of a subject, rather than a detailed description of it. The artists used a direct painting technique when they worked en plein air.
In the nineteenth century, artists and critics began to use the word ‘impressionism’ to describe the informal, direct painting style that was being used by many artists.
There were groups of artists working in an Impressionist style in many parts of the world, including Europe, England, North America and Australia. The most famous group of Impressionist artists worked together in Paris in the 1870s and 1880s. Several of the artists associated with this group, including Claude Monet, developed a bold new approach to using colour. However, the Australian Impressionists were not directly influenced by the French Impressionists.
This was, in part, because they were interested in making paintings that looked distinctly Australian. They were, however, interested in the work of the French artist, Jules Bastien-Lepage, and his followers. These artists combined aspects of an Impressionist style with a more traditional painting style to make images that celebrated rural life and work.
Identify paintings by the Australian Impressionists that show evidence of a direct painting style.
Discuss the visual effects that have been created using this technique. How do they differ from the effects created by more traditional painting techniques.
Why do you think artists and critics began to use the term ‘impressionism’ to describe paintings made in a direct painting style?
Look at examples of French Impressionism. How does this form of Impressionism differ from Australian Impressionism?
Look at the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage. Consider why his work may have interested the artists associated with Australian Impressionism.
The artists in Australian Impressionism often painted en plein air (out of doors) to observe and record the light, colour and atmosphere of their subjects. This frequently involved painting very quickly, using a direct painting style, to create an impression of changing effects, such as sunlight or weather.
Earlier artists, including artists of the Colonial period, such as John Glover and Eugene Von Guérard in Australia, had made oil sketches of the landscape en plein air, but these sketches were made as preparatory work for paintings that were completed in the studio.
What practical challenges did working en plein air present to artists?
Identify several paintings by the Australian Impressionists made en plein air that reveal different light colour and atmospheric effects. Describe the different light, colour and atmospheric effects in each painting.
Consider how the artist’s technique, style (including use of colour and tone) suggests these effects?
Compare these paintings with a landscape painting by an earlier artist that was completed in the studio. What differences are there between the works?
Australian Impressionism highlights many of the significant sites where the artists associated with Australian Impressionism worked en plein air. These include Box Hill, Heidelberg and Mentone, outside Melbourne, where the artists set up artists’ camps for plein-air painting. There are also a significant number of paintings in the exhibition about Melbourne and Sydney.
Look at maps of Sydney and Melbourne and the surrounding areas to locate the main sites where the artists worked in and around these cities.
Investigate what factors led the artists to each site, who worked there, when they worked there and what paintings were made there. Different students in the class could research different sites and report back to the class.
In 1889 the Australian Impressionists held an exhibition of paintings made in an Impressionist style. They called it the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition because many of the paintings were painted on boards that measured 9 inches by 5 inches. The exhibition attracted enormous interest. Although many people admired the paintings, some critics were shocked by them and felt that they looked unfinished.
Look at some reproductions of the 9 by 5 paintings.
Why do you think the artists described these paintings as impressions?
Read some of the reviews of the exhibition, especially the comments of James Smith. What concerns are expressed in these reviews?
Who did the paintings appeal to, and why?
Read about the planning, promotion and presentation of the exhibition. Suggest why the artists organised an exhibition of these paintings and why they put so much effort into the planning, promotion and presentation.
The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition is regarded as one of the most significant exhibitions in Australian art history. Suggest why.
What is your opinion about these paintings?
The paintings in Australian Impressionism are among the most well-known images in Australian art. Many people know the paintings through reproductions in books or on posters, postcards, stamps, jigsaw puzzles and even coffee mugs.
The exhibition features the original paintings, including many of the most well-known paintings of the period. The National Gallery of Victoria owns a significant number of these paintings, but many have been borrowed from other galleries and private owners around Australia and overseas.
Why are the paintings of these artists so popular?
Where have you seen reproductions and in what form?
What role have the reproductions of these paintings played in our understanding of the period, including ideas about national identity?
Why is it important to view the artworks in the original?