NGV Home |Education home |

Header: Australian Impressionism

Questions and Activities


  • View a plan of the exhibition

Early Years

Prepare – before the exhibition

Useful vocabulary


landscape, city views, still life, narrative, interior, portrait

Art terms

original, reproduction, oil paint, direct painting, , studio, traditional technique, realistic Impressionism, tone

History and culture

culture, national spirit, centenary of European settlement, 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 the artists shared many ideas 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?


The Australian Impressionists were interested in making paintings about everyday life and familiar subjects. They made many landscape and narrative (story telling paintings) about the Australian bush and bush life. However, they also painted other subjects, including city views, portraits, still lifes and interiors.

Identify different subjects in the paintings of these artists. (This could be done by giving students cards with different subjects written on them, and asking students to match them to images and explain their choices).

What does each painting tell us about the subject, and how?

A look at history


The range of subjects painted by the Australian Impressionists tell us about many aspects of life in the 1880s and 1890s in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’, Sydney and the bush.

What sort of people and places are represented in the paintings?  Why might the artists have painted these subjects?

What do the paintings tell us about the everyday life of the period, including 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.)

National Themes

History Civics

During the years that the paintings in this exhibition were made, there was a strong feeling of national pride among Australians. The celebration of the centenary of European settlement in 1888 was one of the factors that made many Australians at this time feel very proud. It also made people very interested in the country’s pioneering past, and inspired them to think about what was unique about Australia, including the bush and bush life. Many poets, writers and artists at this time, including the Australian Impressionists, made work with distinctly Australian themes

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, light, ideas and values).

Why do you think the bush and bush life are often viewed as distinctly Australian, when most Australians live in cities?

Do you believe the view of Australia presented in the paintings is one that most Australians related to when the paintings were made? Do they reflect most people’s understanding and experience of Australia now? Whose experiences and ideas about Australia are not represented in these images? Explain.

Materials, techniques and style – traditional techniques

Most of the paintings in Australian Impressionism are made with oil paint on canvas or board. Oil paint is a thick, sticky paint. It can be used in different ways. In many of the paintings in the exhibition the artists used a direct technique (see below). However, some paintings are made using more traditional painting techniques.

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.

What visual effects have been created using this technique?

Materials, techniques and style – direct painting

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 tones directly onto the surface of a painting to create an ‘impression’ of a subject, rather than a detailed description of it. This style of painting is often described as Impressionism.

The artists used a direct painting technique when they worked en plein air (see below).

In some paintings, such as Down on his luck 1889, by Fred McCubbin the artists used a combination of traditional and direct painting techniques.

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?

Plein-air painting

The artists in Australian Impressionism often painted en plein air (out of doors) to observe and record light, colour and weather effects. This frequently involved painting very quickly, using a direct painting style, to capture changing effects.

Identify two paintings made en plein air that reveal different light colour and weather effects (e.g. different times of the day, different seasons)

Describe the different light, colour and weather in each painting.

Consider how the artist’s technique and style (including use of colour and tone) suggests these effects.

Make a small painting en plein air, using a direct painting style to create an image that records the light, colour and weather.

The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

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?

Why do you think some critics might have felt the paintings looked unfinished?

What do you think other people admired about them?

What do you think about this style of painting?

Significant sites


The exhibition 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.

Locate the different places that the artists worked on a map.

List the artists who worked at each site.

Make a timeline to show when the artists worked at each of the places.

Identify paintings made at the various locations where the artists worked.

What can you learn about each place from the paintings?

Originals and reproductions

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 do you think you will see by looking at the original that you do not see in the reproduction?

What painting(s) are you most looking forward to seeing in the original, and why?