Australian Impressionism focuses on the first fourteen years of the movement, 1883 to 1897. In 1883 Tom Roberts met with two young artists, Laureà Barrau and Ramón Casas, in Spain. They talked to Roberts about the new ideas they had encountered in Paris – the importance of colour and ‘direct painting’, ideas that Roberts brought back to Australia. The second date, 1897, is the year that Streeton left Australia for Europe, and it marks the time that the original group of artists associated with the development of Australian Impressionism disintegrated. The exhibition covers the intense period in between when a new school of Australian painting emerged. Sketchy impressions of the landscape, painted en plein air, appeared alongside compositions that encapsulated a sense of Australia’s emerging ‘national’ identity. An ‘Aesthetic’ sensibility and an awareness of avant-garde directions in art, such as Symbolism and a Japanese aesthetic, were embraced by this group of young, bohemian artists.
Five key figures are given centre stage in the exhibition: Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Fred McCubbin and Jane Sutherland. The story of the emergence of Australian Impressionism in the hands of these artists is told room by room in the gallery spaces. The life of the city of Melbourne, the sites of the artists’ famous open-air painting camps in the environs of Melbourne and Sydney, national themes, a room devoted to the work of Jane Sutherland and the move into symbolism make up the chronological account of the lives and achievements of the artists. The controversial 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, the most famous exhibition in the history of Australian art, has a central and significant place in the exhibition – the number of ‘9 by 5s’ shown exceeding the number seen together since the original exhibition in 1899.
The exhibition title, Australian Impressionism, brings into question the name given to this most loved group of Australian artists. Since 1891 the artists have commonly been known as the ‘Heidelberg School’, a name coined by the American art critic, Sidney Dickinson. In reality the painters did not belong to a ‘school’, nor did they share exactly the same goals. However, they did share close friendships and they painted together at sites such as Box Hill and Heidelberg. The name, the Heidelberg School, was based on the two summers Streeton, Conder and Roberts spent living in a farmhouse at Heidelberg painting the surrounding landscape. Here Streeton painted some of the most quintessential evocations of the dry summer landscape. Streeton’s nostalgic reminiscences of the time at Heidelberg, recorded in his letters, may have contributed to the subsequent significance given to Heidelberg. Roberts, however, did not spend a great deal of time at Heidelberg and McCubbin did not stay there at all. Sutherland, being a woman and forbidden by Victorian codes of conduct to stay overnight, made day visits. In fact, the term the ‘Heidelberg School’ reflects only a brief moment in the careers of only some of the artists.
The title of the exhibition, Australian Impressionism, reflects the view that the art of this generation of painters, often referred to as the ‘Heidelberg School’, is the Australian expression of the move towards naturalistic, plein-air painting that was taking place, not only in France, but in England, throughout Europe and in North America. The interest in capturing the effects of light and colour in landscapes painted on the spot was not limited to the French Impressionists working in the 1870s and 80s. Quick sketches or ‘impressions’ of the landscape painted in the open air were an important part of the practice of many earlier nineteenth-century artists. The difference was that these artists did not regard their ‘impressions’ as finished works of art, but as studies to be used in the studio. The Australian artists, Roberts, Streeton, Conder, McCubbin, Sutherland and their contemporaries, were part of the ‘International Impressionism’ that swept through the world’s art communities during the second half of the nineteenth century. Their works, like those of their overseas contemporaries, is characterised by:
[the] impulse to paint contemporary life and experience directly from nature, to study the effects of nature’s light,
and to use a lighter palette and looser brushwork to proclaim the artist’s individuality and sincerity and the immediacy of the experience
that the canvas mediated for the viewer.
Broude, N (ed) 1990, World Impressionism: The International Movement,1860-1920, New York, p.10.