• Shearing the rams

    Shearing the rams 1890

    Tom ROBERTS

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    Notes

    For Indigenous Australians, the bush has long held sacred associations that are central to their identity. In stark contrast, Australia's early colonists regarded the bush as an unfamiliar and at times threatening place, to be cleared or transfigured in keeping with European sensibilities.

    As the colonies grew into established cities and towns, attitudes changed. By 1891, two-thirds of the population was living in cities, yet it was the bush and bush life that colonial settlers regarded as uniquely Australian and integral to the nation's identity.

    Bush characters - the pioneer settlers, shearers, swagmen and mountain horsemen - came to represent an emerging national character. They were seen as resilient and stoic, despite or because of the hardships offered up by their environment.

  • The pioneer

    The pioneer 1904

    Frederick McCUBBIN

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    Notes

    McCubbin’s monumental canvas The Pioneer reflects the self-conscious nationalism of the years immediately following Federation. Each panel is ‘read’ to link the progress of the toil of this land across time. The first panel shows a pioneering couple in their new bush environment. The man is lighting a fire to boil the ‘billy’ while the woman contemplates their future life. The second panel shows the couple several years later; the woman holds a baby, land has been cleared and a small house has been built. In the final panel a bushman discovers a grave and in the background, a city begins to emerge. It is uncertain who has died and whether the male figure is the pioneer, his son or a stranger.

    By presenting his painting across three panels – the triptych format for traditional religious art – McCubbin has elevated the status of the pioneer within Australian art history.

  • Flood sufferings

    Flood sufferings 1890

    Aby ALTSON

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    Notes

    By 1890, Aby Altson was the National Gallery School’s star pupil and with Flood sufferings he carried off the second triennial travelling scholarship. Not long before, a disastrous flood at Bourke had made headline news and so, as The Australasian Critic remarked, Altson’s topical subject ‘probably had quite as much effect as its treatment in securing the honour that has been bestowed upon it. A strong prejudice prevails in Australia in favour of pictures describing local incidents or characters – a prejudice which future contestants for the scholarship would do well to bear in mind.’

    The Age newspaper also sang the painting’s praises, reporting on 13 November 1890 that ‘the picture of the year is undoubtedly Mr Altson’s Flood sufferings … the homely realism of the scene is, perhaps, its greatest charm.’


The early colonists of Australia regarded the bush as an unfamiliar and at times threatening place, to be cleared or transfigured in keeping with European sensibilities.

As the colonies grew into established cities and towns, attitudes changed. By 1891, two-thirds of the population was living in cities, yet it was the bush and bush life that colonial settlers regarded as uniquely Australian and integral to the nation’s identity.

Bush characters – the pioneer settlers, shearers, swagmen and mountain horsemen – came to represent an emerging national character. They were seen as resilient and stoic, despite or because of the hardships offered up by their environment.

  • The shearer

    Tom Roberts gave visual expression to this nationalistic fervor, painting several grand images of Australian life including Shearing the rams 1890, which celebrates work and life in rural Australia.

    In 1888, Roberts visited a station near Corowa, New South Wales, to sketch shearers at work. He returned the following shearing season to develop the canvas on location.

    The carefully composed scene of strong, industrious shearers working harmoniously to strip the sheep of their fleece encapsulates the ideas that Roberts wanted to express about the productive relationship between man and nature in the bush.5

  • The pioneer

    Frederick McCubbin chose another bush character as the focus for his grand narrative painting The Pioneer 1904, which remains one of Australia’s best-loved works.

    Painted at Mt Macedon, Victoria, the work reflects the self-conscious nationalism of the years immediately following Federation. In the first panel we see a pioneering couple in their new bush environment, the thick, undisturbed vegetation and wagon suggesting they have just arrived.

    In the second panel we see the same couple, but the cleared land, small house and child indicate that several years have passed. In the final panel, a bushman discovers a grave and in the background we cansee a developing city. It is uncertain who has died and whether the male figure is the pioneer, his son or a stranger.

  • Bush hardships

    Aby Altson was also captivated by the pioneering theme, particularly the hardships of bush life and the stoicism of those that live in the bush. His painting Flood sufferings 1890 reminds us that Australians have long had to contend with the devastating impact of flood.

    Altson sets the scene inside a farmhouse that has been swamped with water. A mother and child lie on a make-shift stretcher of gum boughs and are carried to safety by two sturdy men. Through the open door an elderly woman anxiously watches on, hitching up her skirts in a vain attempt to keep dry amid the floodwaters. 6

Endnotes

  • 9 http://www.ngv.vic.gov.au/ausimpress/education/insights_historic.html, National Gallery of Victoria
  • 5 Australia Speaks, NGV education kit; Terence Lane, Nineteenth-century Australian Art in the National Gallery of Victoria, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 2003


  • 6 Jane Clark and Bridget Whitelaw, Golden Summers – Heidelberg and beyond, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985, p. 48.