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Header: Australian Impressionism

Questions and Activities


  • View a plan of the exhibition

Later Years

Prepare – before the exhibition

Useful vocabulary


landscape, rural, urban, still life, narrative, interior, portrait, allegory

Art terms

oil paint, direct painting, plein-air, studio, traditional technique, academic art, sketch, tone, modelling, composition, naturalism, atmospheric effects, symbolism, Aestheticism, Impressionism, Symbolism, Barbizon School

History and culture

nationalism, national identity, centenary of European settlement, Federation, pastoral expansion, urbanisation


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 between 1883 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 an artists’ individual styles and interests?

What is the value of an exhibition such as Australian Impressionism?


The Australian Impressionists painted a wide range of subjects, including rural and urban landscapes, narratives, portraits and still lifes. Like many other international artists in the late nineteenth century, they were interested in subjects drawn from contemporary life. However, an interest in distinctly Australian themes, evident in many subjects related to the bush and rural life, inspired McCubbin and Roberts to make some paintings that reflected on the nation’s history. The allegorical paintings of Streeton and Conder are also a departure from subjects drawn from contemporary life, and reflect the artists’ awareness of a range of ideas in international art.

Look at the range of subjects painted by the artists.

How are these subjects similar/different to the subjects that interested other Australian and international artists at this time?

Identify a painting by McCubbin and a painting by Roberts that reflect on the nation’s history. What aspect of the nation’s history is explored in each painting?

Identify a painting by Streeton and a painting by Conder with an allegorical subject. Explain why these subjects can be described as allegorical.

Identify the main subjects painted by each artist represented in Australian Impressionism.

Suggest what factors may have influenced each artists’ choice of subjects. Consider, for example personal, economic, artistic, social and cultural influences and interests. (This could be done using an influence diagram).

Historic framework – boom and bust


The paintings of the Australian Impressionists span a period that was characterised by prosperity and growth, pastoral expansion and urbanisation, the rise of unionism, as well as industrial conflict, a severe depression and crippling drought.

Discuss which of these ideas are reflected in a range of paintings, and how.

Discuss which of these themes and events are not reflected in the paintings. Suggest reasons for this.

What value do the paintings have as historical documents? How do paintings compare with other historical documents in the information they present?

Historic framework – Images of a nation

English History

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.

The plein-air landscape paintings made by the Australian Impressionists at the artists’ camps during the 1880s were strongly associated with the development of ‘a national school of painting’. However, by the late 1880s and 1890s Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton were also making larger scale paintings focusing on aspects of rural and bush life, inspired by the nationalistic spirit of the period. These paintings both reflected and helped to define the nation’s emerging sense of identity.

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 the large-scale paintings made by Roberts, McCubbin and Streeton in the 1880s and 1890s 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.

What role do artworks, including paintings, poetry and literature, play in defining national identity within a culture?

Materials, techniques and style – traditional techniques

Although the Australian Impressionists adopted techniques that reflected some of the more progressive tendencies in nineteenth-century art, including direct painting (see below), their art practice was also informed by more traditional ideas and values.

Each of the artists represented in the exhibition spent at least some time at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. Like many art schools of the period, classes at the Gallery School followed the example of the influential European art academies and taught traditional painting and drawing skills. This traditional academic training was particularly influential for McCubbin, who had a long involvement with the Gallery School, as both a student and a teacher; and Roberts who continued his education at the Royal Academy School in London after attending the Gallery School in Melbourne. Both artists completed large-scale figure paintings that clearly reflect the influence of their academic training in the formal structure of their compositions, the strength of the figure drawing, and the 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.

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

Apart from traditional painting techniques, what other aspects of Down on his luck and Shearing the rams reflect the artists’ academic training? Consider the formal structure of the composition and the representation of the figures.

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.

Materials techniques and style – direct painting and Impressionism

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.

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 plein-air painters, and Jules Bastien-Lepage and his followers who combined aspects of an Impressionist style with a more traditional academic style of painting to create images that celebrate rural life and work. The work of James McNeill Whistler was also an important influence on the Australian Impressionists. This is most evident in the paintings made for the 9 by 5 Impressionist Exhibition, and in the presentation of this exhibition.

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?

What are the advantages and disadvantages of applying such terms to artists and artworks?

Look at examples of French Impressionism. How does this form of Impressionism differ from Australian Impressionism?

Look at the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage and James McNeill Whistler. What links can you see between the work of these artists and the Australian Impressionists?

Explore how the Australian Impressionists may have learnt about the work of international artists. Consider, for example, the impact of Roberts’s travels abroad, International exhibitions and artists in Melbourne, and the international art press.

Plein-air painting

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.

International artists with experience of the plein-air movement in Europe, who worked in Australia in the 1880s and 1890s, played an important role in the development of the plein-air movement in Australia.

Investigate and discuss the development of the plein-air painting movement internationally and in Australia in the nineteenth century.

How did the practice of working en plein air to produce a finished painting differ significantly from more traditional approaches to painting the landscape?  How is this evident in the type of landscape paintings the artists produced?

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 (consider technique, visual qualities, composition and scale)?

Significant sites

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, including the natural attractions of the site and accessibility by public transport.

Identify who worked at each site, approximately 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.

Why is the term ‘Heidelberg School’ often used in reference to the artists associated with Australian Impressionism?  Consider the relative importance of this site, but also the factors that contribute to how groups of artists are often defined in art history.  What are the issues associated with using the term ‘Heidelberg School’ to identify these artists?

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?  Look at the paintings and consider the artist’s statement in the exhibition catalogue in our discussion.

Read some of the reviews of the exhibition, especially the comments of James Smith. What concerns are expressed in these reviews?  Suggest why James Smith had these concerns?

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.

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, advertisements, 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?

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Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua. At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua. At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum.
Lorem ipsum dolor sit amet, consetetur sadipscing elitr, sed diam nonumy eirmod tempor invidunt ut labore et dolore magna aliquyam erat, sed diam voluptua. At vero eos et accusam et justo duo dolores et ea rebum.