Weatherboard Creek Falls
Constructing a view
Weatherboard Creek Falls, Jamieson’s Valley, New South Wales, 1862, is one of Eugene von Guérard’s major paintings. It was painted in the studio, from sketches and annotated drawings made by the artist during a visit to the Blue Mountains three years earlier.
Von Guérard’s determination to paint this spectacular scene seems to have been partly prompted by comments by the art critic James Smith. In a letter to Smith on 26 May 1860, Von Guérard wrote: ‘Your belief in the great difficulty of execution of the grand valley of the Weatherboard Fall in N.S.W. in my adapted style induces me more than anything to try this work as soon as possible’.
The painting presents a breathtaking panoramic view of the landscape framed by dramatic rock formations, and extending across a vast expanse of densely forested mountains towards a distant horizon. Von Guérard’s fascination with the natural world is clearly evident in the specific details of the vegetation and the accurate observation of water and rock formations in the landscape. The cascading falls on the left show how water carves and shapes mountains and valleys – eroding and dividing the land relentlessly over time. Note the spray of mist delicately rising behind the rocks in the centre of the painting. From this we understand that the water falls over a steep escarpment, plunging down to rocks far below.
Weatherboard Creek Falls depicts nature as endlessly evolving, powerful and dramatic. It reflects Von Guérard’s interest in both scientific enquiry and the poetic beauty and grandeur of the natural world.
Beneath the surface
A grid system
The painting Weatherboard Creek Falls, Jamieson’s Valley, New South Wales accurately replicates the composition and detail of a preliminary drawing that Von Guérard made over three days while visiting the area. The artist used a grid system to help accurately copy the preliminary drawing onto the canvas. However, instead of using the traditional method of drawing grid lines directly onto the drawing and canvas, Von Guérard used fine thread which was later removed.
The technical examination of pictures painted by Von Guérard has sometimes revealed tiny marks measured at precise increments around the edge of the painting to which the thread was aligned.
This technique allowed Von Guérard to preserve his preliminary drawing, and create an underdrawing, unblemished by drawn grid lines. Von Guérard was later commissioned to make a smaller version of Weatherboard Creek Falls. This painting, now in the collection of Geelong Gallery, used the same gridding technique to faithfully reproduce the detail found in both the drawing and the larger painting on a smaller scale.
Von Guérard’s attention to accurately reproducing the detail of the preliminary drawing reflects a strong commitment to remaining true to what he observed in nature.
The technical examination of Weatherboard Creek Falls undertaken by conservators at the NGV used sophisticated imaging equipment that revealed new insights into von Guérard’s methods. An examination of the painting using infrared reflectography reveals that individual trees and shrubs are drawn in detail beneath the paint surface. This highlights Von Guérard’s meticulous working method and his commitment to accurately reproducing what he saw in nature.
On the surface
Traditional oil painting methods in the nineteenth century generally involved building up semi-transparent layers across the surface of a painting, allowing each layer to dry before applying the next. Von Guérard, however, worked in a fluid, fast manner, working wet paint into wet paint, concentrating on small areas of his painting at a time. Close examination of Weatherboard Creek Falls reveals remarkable detail, particularly in the texture, colour, tone and form of rocks, trees and plants. Von Guérard achieved this detail with the assistance of a magnifier, and using the point of an extremely fine brush.
Inspired by geology
Von Guérard was fascinated by geology and the relatively new understanding of the processes involved in shaping the Earth’s surface, such as volcanic activity, continental shift and weathering. In this painting his knowledge of this subject is revealed in the accuracy with which he records the stratification of the rock in the quartz sandstone ridges which dominate the view.
In the foreground – the figure
In the preliminary drawing for Weatherboard Creek Falls, Jamieson’s Valley, New South Wales, von Guérard focuses particular attention on the rock formations and vegetation in the middle ground of the scene, rendering the detail in fine, precisely drawn lines. Details in the foreground are suggested more generally, with fewer, more sketchy lines. Although von Guérard did not have sufficient time to capture the detail in the foreground of his drawings, when making a painting in the studio he would use other sketches or studies, often made in the area, to add foreground details.
In the right foreground of Weatherboard Creek Falls we see an Aboriginal male figure standing alone, near the edge of the cliff. This figure does not appear in the original sketches, but it was common practice for landscape painters to add one or more figures to the composition to create a sense of scale. Von Guérard encountered Aboriginal people while travelling around remote areas of New South Wales, and was a keen collector of Aboriginal material culture.
Today such stereotypical representations of Indigenous people are understood to embody the damaging misunderstandings about Indigenous cultures that were held by European colonists in the nineteenth century.
In a lithograph of the same scene, published in his album Eugene von Guerard’s Australian Landscapes, 1866–68, von Guérard replaced the Aboriginal figure with four European figures admiring the spectacular view.