Eugene von Guérard (1811–1901) is one of Australia’s most important landscape painters. TheEugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed exhibition recognises the enormous contribution he made to Australian art. It documents the artist’s extensive travels, highlighting his adventurous spirit and his involvement with exploration and science. Von Guérard’s many paintings, prints and sketchbooks reveal an intense curiosity and wonder about the world.
Von Guérard was born in Vienna. At the age of fifteen he left his birthplace for an extended tour of Italy with his father, an artist best known as a painter of portrait miniatures. Von Guérard observed his father seeking commissions and learnt from his extensive technical knowledge and skills. Together they made many sketching trips in the countryside.
In Rome von Guérard studied under Giovanni Battista Bassi who was interested in the tradition of the great seventeenth-century landscape artists such as Salvator Rosa, Claude Lorrain and Nicholas Poussin, and who sought ‘truth’ in his landscape painting. Von Guérard also associated with a group known as the Nazarenes, which included a number of German artists. Inspired by the art of earlier periods, the Nazarenes sought to return spiritual values to art.
In 1838, after his father’s death in 1836 in Naples, von Guérard moved to Germany to study at the Dusseldorf Academy of Art, one of the leading art schools in Europe. Here he was taught by Johann Wilhelm Schirmer (1807–1863), a landscape painter who, like von Guérard, had travelled and worked in Italy. During these formative years von Guérard also undertook trips to the Netherlands, Switzerland and France, and may have been influenced by Schirmer’s strong interest in the Dutch tradition of landscape painting. This tradition was built on the work of seventeenth-century artists such as Jacob van Ruisdael (1628–1682) who composed poetic and expressive views of the natural world based on sketches and studies made directly from nature. Most importantly, Schirmer encouraged his students, including von Guérard, to paint directly from nature.
The Romantic movement, which emphasised emotion and feeling over reason and order, had a significant influence on many aspects of art and culture – including landscape painting – during the nineteenth century. Von Guérard’s interest in the beauty, mystery and grandeur of nature has links to Romanticism.
Von Guérard’s fascination with the natural world was also informed by contemporary science, particularly the influential work of the renowned scientist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859). Humboldt developed new and influential theories about how nature was a harmonious ordered whole in which all aspects are interrelated.
In 1852 von Guérard travelled to Australia, lured by the anticipation of finding gold, and an interest in the geography, geology and vegetation of the Australian ‘new world’. Life on the goldfields was exciting but conditions were harsh. After fourteen months, and finding enough gold to make a living (his last find was made into two wedding bands for himself and his fiancé), von Guérard left the gold fields and returned to Melbourne where he resumed his painting career.
Over the next thirty years, inspired by the unique and beautiful Australian landscape von Guérard made sketching expeditions to rural and remote areas in south-eastern Australia, and New Zealand. He also accompanied several scientific expeditions. The sketchbooks from his travels provided him with a wealth of reference material for future studio painting.
During his career von Guérard also made a significant number of ‘house portraits’, usually commissioned, depicting the properties of wealthy country landowners.
In 1870 von Guérard was appointed first Curator and Master of the School of Art at the National Gallery of Victoria.
Von Guérard returned to Europe in 1882. He died in London in 1901.
An early painting
Swamp near Erkrath
Swamp near Erkrath, 1841, is an early work by von Guérard, which has not previously been exhibited. It is a small oil study that depicts a swamp district on the road to one of von Guérard’s favourite sketching areas, Neander Valley, outside Dusseldorf.
This picture reflects the influence of von Guérard’s teacher, Johann Wilhelm Schirmer, whose landscape paintings were carefully composed, poetic interpretations of the natural world based on sketches and studies made outdoors directly from nature. Schirmer was the first professor of landscape painting in Dusseldorf. Traditionally landscape painting had been seen as secondary to other genres such as history painting or portraiture.
The high horizon line in Swamp suggests that von Guérard was positioned very low to the ground when he painted it, leaning forward to survey the panoramic scene from a close vantage point. The viewer’s eye travels through the low-lying vegetation into the broad vista of the landscape. The exquisite details of the swamp reveal many species that live harmoniously together. The artist’s accurate observation can be seen in the distinctive varieties of plants.
Alexander von Humboldt (1769–1859)
Alexander von Humboldt was a German scientist and explorer. His research, findings and theories were popular and deeply influential in his day and have affected many scientists and their work since. His interest in investigating and explaining the unity of the natural world highlighted the relationship between the physical sciences of meteorology, geology and biology. It has been suggested that he was, in effect, the world’s first ecologist.
Humboldt was a great collector of information. Using sophisticated scientific instruments he collected extensive data from expeditions in the Americas. The image illustrated is a summary of his theory that nature was a harmonious ordered whole in which all aspects are interrelated.
Humboldt believed that works of art could provide important information, and that artists could visualise aspects of the environment that scientists could not, to uncover the complexities of the earth. Von Guérard responded to Humboldt’s call for artists to travel beyond the limits of the Mediterranean to paint the landscapes of the new world.
Places of Significance – Europe
Von Guérard was born in Vienna to a German father and an Austrian mother and travelled extensively in Europe before leaving for Australia in 1852. He returned to Europe in 1882 where he spent the final years of his life.
Eugene von Guérard was born in Vienna in 1811 and spent his early years in the city. At this time Vienna was the centre of the ruling Austro-Hungarian Empire. Von Guérard’s father, Bernhard, painted in the court of Emperor Franz Josef.
Von Guérard and his father lived in Rome between 1830 and 1832 where they met some of the leading artists in the vibrant German community then living in the city. Von Guérard’s earliest known landscape painting, Tor di Quinto, was painted directly from nature in the countryside outside Rome.
Naples and Sicily
While travelling with his father in southern Italy (1832–36) von Guérard created some dramatic drawings depicting the eruption of Mount Vesuvius in 1834. The threatening plumes of smoke, cloud and fire spewing from the mouth of the crater reveal his fascination with the natural world. The two men spent many hours studying and sketching the many ancient ruins and enjoying the light and unique features of the landscape. Their sketchbooks recording their trip to Sicily in 1834 include some almost identical views, revealing their shared passion and fascination for the landscape.
Von Guérard lived and studied in Dusseldorf between 1838 and 1852. During this time he made many expeditions into the countryside, including the volcanic area of the Eifel. The sketchbooks from this time show detailed sections of rock formations and crater lakes.
Von Guérard returned to Dusseldorf in 1882 after living in Australia, and remained there until 1891. He continued to paint Australian views at this time.
Places of significance – Australia
During his time in Australia (1852–82) von Guérard travelled extensively in rural and remote Victoria, including the Dandenong Ranges. He also accompanied the scientific expeditions led by A. W. Howitt (1860) and those led by Professor Georg Balthasar von Neumayer (1862) to Cape Otway and the Australian Alps, including Mount Kosciuszko.
The artist spent considerable time in Victoria’s Western District. He enjoyed the similarities between the volcanic plains in this area with Germany’s Eifel district outside Dusseldorf. He also made trips to other colonies: Tasmania in 1856 and 1875, South Australia in 1855 and New South Wales in 1859. He visited New Zealand in 1876.