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Header: Australian Impressionism


Image above:
Charles Conder

Dandenong from Heidelberg (detail)(c.1889), oil on composition board
11.5 x 23.5cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide


Image: Charles Conder, Catalogue of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

Charles Conder (designer)
England 1868–1909, lived in Australia
Fergusson & Mitchell, Melbourne (printer)
1857– (1890s)
Catalogue of
The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition
photo–lithograph and letterpress
on hand–made paper
17.7 x 21.6 cm (open), 17.7 x 10.6 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 2006

In an article in Table Talk magazine on 28 June, 1889, Sophie Osmond explained Impressionism to her readers as ‘sketchy work, brilliant in colour but vague in design’ and alerted the public to a forthcoming exhibition of Impressionist works in Melbourne:

Now… the public will have the opportunity of judging for itself what Impressionism really is, for it is the intention of our Victorian artists to hold an ‘impressionist’ exhibition in Mr. Tom Roberts’s studio at the Grosvenor Chamber’s in about a month’s time. The three principals of the movement are Mr Tom Roberts, Mr Charles Conder and Mr. Arthur Streeton, who have taken the responsibility of the matter into their own hands. These three artists are generally considered to be the leaders of Impressionism here, while Fred McCubbin may possibly be added as a fourth…

The sketch-like qualities widely associated with Impressionism were evident in the work of a significant number of local artists working en plein air by the second half of the nineteenth century. However, the exhibition planned by Roberts, Conder, Streeton and McCubbin, which they called the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, reflected a determined and conscious effort to engage local audiences with Impressionism. In coming weeks further articles by Sophie Osmond kept the readers of Table Talk informed about the progress of the exhibition. The venue was changed to Buxton’s Rooms and when the exhibition opened on 17 August 1889 it included 183 works, with the majority by Roberts (62) Conder (46) and Streeton (40). McCubbin contributed five works with the balance made up of works by the artists’ colleague C. Douglas Richardson (26) and two young art students R.E. Falls (3) and Fred Daly (1).


image: decorative motif

The paintings

Image: Arthur Streeton, Windy and Wet 1889

Arthur Streeton
Windy and wet 1889
oil on cardboard
14.3 x 24.0 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1955

Image: Tom Roberts, Mentone 1888

Tom Roberts
Mentone 1888
oil on wood panel
11.0 x 18.8 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased, 1955


The title of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition was inspired by the dimensions of a majority of the paintings (nine inches by five inches or 23cm x 13cm, approximately), as well as their Impressionist style. Many of the paintings were painted on cigar box lids collected from tobacconists, but just as many were most were painted on board. There were also a number of paintings on canvas, and some sculptured panels in wax and one in bronze.


The artists explained their interests and aims as Impressionists in the small catalogue they produced for the exhibition. The title page opens with a quotation from the French artist Gérôme (1824–1904):

When you draw, form is the important thing; but in painting, the first thing to look for is the general impression of colour,    and a statement addressed to the public:


An effect is only momentary; so an impressionist tries to find his place. Two half hours are never alike, and he who tries to paint the sunset on two successive evenings, must be more or less working from memory. So in these works, it has been the object of the artist to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects that widely differing, and often of very fleeting character.


The artists’ interest in obtaining ‘first records’ of ‘fleeting’ effects was achieved by working quickly and using broad strokes of colour and tone. The fresh, sketch–like quality that characterised the 9 by 5 Impressionism Exhibition paintings is revealed in Streeton’s Windy and Wet, 1889, which captures the atmosphere of a damp winter’s day. Obvious brushstrokes and a subdued range of tones describe the sweeping path of a muddy road receding into the distance, light reflecting from still puddles in sodden ground, a leaden grey sky and a figure struggling against the wind. A different mood prevails in Mentone, 1888, by Tom Roberts. In this landscape strong horizontal brushstrokes and pale tones are used to describe distant hills, and a still, peaceful expanse of water in the middleground. The blond tones of dry grass in the foreground indicate it may be summer, while a soft pink flush in the sky suggests the end of the day. The foreground is dominated by the figures of a seated man and a standing woman – the form of each figure rendered in just a few bold brushstrokes.


Image: Tom Roberts, (Andante) (C.1889)

Tom Roberts
(Andante) (c.1889)
(also known as Woman at the piano)
oil on wood panel
26.0 x 13.1 cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Image: Charles Conder, An Impressionist (c.1889)

Charles Conder
An impressionist
(detail) (c.1889)
oil on cedar panel
28.0 x 14.7 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney

Although most of the paintings in the exhibition were plein air landscapes there were also many other subjects, including cityscapes, portraits, still lifes, genre scenes and allegories. An Impressionist, c. 1889 by Conder, a portrait of Streeton, and Andante, (also known as Woman at the Piano), c.1889 by Roberts reveal how the broad painterly areas of colour and tone associated with Impressionism were also used to describe subjects other than landscapes. As the opening of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition drew closer some of the artists who had originally intended to exhibit withdrew their support, increasing pressure on the main protagonists to provide paintings for the exhibition. Conder travelled to the countryside at Riddells Creek in July to make work for the exhibition, but Roberts and Streeton focused on subjects close to where they worked in the city. Streeton’s Princess & Burke & Wills, 1889 shows the sculpture of the explorers Burke and Wills in its second location on Spring Street with the Princess Theatre in the background. By the Treasury, 1889 and The first tram, 1889 by Roberts were painted near the artist’s Grosvenor chamber studio, which was located in Collins Street.The time of the year when many of the paintings were made, just prior to the exhibition opening in August, explains the high number of wet weather subjects among the paintings.


The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition reflected the artists’ awareness of international art and artists, and a desire for their work to be seen in that broader context. The influence of London–based American artist James McNeill Whistler (1834–1903) and Aestheticism was particularly important for the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. The subtle colour and tonal harmonies used to create mood and atmosphere in many paintings, including Fog, Thames Embankment, c. 1884, which Roberts painted while he was still in London, have clear links to Whistler. The influence of Japanese art and design, which was so important for Whistler and Aestheticism, is also evident in many of the paintings in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. For example, the arrangement of strong simplified forms in a vertical format in Andante has strong affinities with Japanese art. The delicate pink blossoms on bare branches in Herrick’s blossoms, c.1888 by Conder also have a decorative quality associated with Japanese art. The title for this work refers to a poem by English poet Robert Herrick (1591–1674), which highlights the fragile and fleeting quality of beauty, a favourite theme in Aesthetic art and literature.

Image: Arthur Streeton, Burke and Wills, 1889

Arthur Streeton
Princess & Burke & Wills
oil on wood panel
21.5 x 16.5 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased though the NGV Foundation with
the assistance of The Hugh D. T. Williamson
Foundation, Honorary Life Benefactor, 2005

Image: Tom Roberts, By the treasury, 1889

Tom Roberts
By the Treasury (1889) oil on wood panel
23.6 x 14.2 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased through the NGV Foundation with the assistance of The Hugh D. T. Williamson Foundation, Founder Benefactor, 2002

Image: Charles Conder, Herrick’s blossoms (c.1889)

Charles Conder
Herrick’s blossoms (c.1889)
oil on cardboard
13.1 x 24.0 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased, 1969

Image: Tom Roberts, Fog, Thames Embankment, 1884

Tom Roberts
Fog, Thames Embankment (c.1884)
oil on wood panel
12.7 x 22.9 cm
Private collection, Tasmania

The exhibition

Image: The Artistic Stationery Company’s (Buxton’s) 
						new premises, Albert Charles Cook

The Artistic Stationery Company's
(Buxton's) new premises

Albert Charles COOK (artist)

After initially reporting that the exhibition would be at Roberts’s studio in Grosvenor chambers, Table Talk later informed the public that the venue for the exhibition was now to be Buxton’s Rooms in Swanston Street, opposite the Melbourne Town Hall. Buxton’s building, which opened in 1885, was a result of the booming economy in ‘Marvellous Melbourne’ in the 1880s. Above a ground floor business selling ‘high-class stationery, fancy goods and artists’ materials’ the building housed rooms for arts-related activities, including a gallery on the first floor.


It is very likely that Whistler’s carefully stage-managed exhibitions, such as his famous ‘ Notes’ – ‘Harmonies’ – ‘Nocturnes’ exhibition held in London in 1884, were an important source of inspiration for the attention paid to the planning, marketing and presentation of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. Following Whistler’s example, the Australian artists presented most of works in simple standardised panel frames rather than more conventional gilt frames. Most of the frames were made from wide flat panels of redwood. Some of these were stained black, painted with metallic fluid or embellished with other decoration.


Image: Charles Conder, Dandenong from Heidelberg (c.1889)

Charles Conder
Dandenong from Heidelberg (c.1889),
oil on composition board
11.5 x 23.5cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

The gallery was beautifully decorated in an Aesthetic style, as detailed in several press reports:

Drapings of soft liberty silk of many delicate colours, were drawn, knotted and looped among the sketches, while Japanese umbrellas, screens and handsome Bretby jardinières completed a most harmonious arrangement of colour.
Table Talk 23 August 1889 p.4

Scarves and draperies of soft clinging silk, of the reds that Millais has made popular, and the greens, beloved of the Aesthetic, hang from picture-frames and over stands and carved cabinets. The great blue and green vases that stand in various parts of the gallery were filled on the opening day with japonica and roses, violets and jonquils, and the air was sweet with the perfume of daphne.
Castilla, Miss Ethel, 1889, ‘Viva’,The Daily Telegraph, 24 August.

The elegant little catalogue produced for the exhibition was printed on handmade paper with a decorative Aesthetic-style cover design by Conder. Afternoon tea was served daily ‘in dainty little cups about the size of thimbles’ at 4pm, and each Wednesday afternoon there was a musical concert.

The response

The exhibition preview was attended by large numbers from the press as well as literary people, socialites, collectors and the artists’ friends. The paintings were affordable with most priced at between one and three guineas. There were over fifty pounds of sales in just a few hours at the preview, and by the end of the exhibition approximately eighty of the paintings were sold, many to friends and supporters of the artists. Most of the paintings that remained unsold were auctioned at the conclusion of the exhibition.


The exhibition generated great interest and good reviews were received from the critics in The Age and Table Talk. A ‘lady representative’ in The Evening Standard, 17 August 1889, encouraged her readers to attend in order to understand ‘Impressionism’:

Image: Robert Dowling, James Smith 1884

Robert Dowling
James Smith1884
La Trobe Picture Collection
State Library of Victoria

These daring young Impressionists, who are making an effort to engage amateur art-lovers by presenting, for the first time in Australia, a series of their ‘impressions’, aim at conveying in their pictures a broad effect of tone and colour without the eye being attracted by detail. Some of the ‘impressions’ were caught and painted in a quarter of an hour…Persons interested in art should not fail to visit it. If they have no other satisfaction it will be again to have ocular demonstration of what an artist’s ‘impression’ means.

‘Viva’ (Miss Ethel Castilla) of the Daily Telegraph described the exhibition as an attractive display of clever little sketches and suggested the main idea of the impressionist movement is a revolt against conventionality (Daily Telegraph, 24 August, 1889).

It was this affront to conventionality that inspired the trenchant criticisms of James Smith, The Argus, who was Melbourne’s leading art critic and a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria. He was outraged that the artists had exhibited their impressions as finished paintings:

The modern impressionist asks you to see pictures in splashes of colours, in slap-dash brushwork, and in sleight-of-hand methods of execution leading to the proposition of pictorial conundrums, which would baffle solution if there were no label or catalogue. In an exhibition of paintings you naturally look for pictures, instead of which the impressionist presents you with a varied assortment of palettes. Of the 180 exhibits catalogued on the present occasion, something like four-fifths are a pain the eye. Some of them look like faded pictures seen through several mediums of thick gauze; others suggest that a paint-pot has been accidentally upset over a panel of nine inches by five; others resemble the first essays of a small boy, who has just been apprenticed to a house-painter.
James Smith, Argus, 17 August 1889

The artists responded to Smith’s criticism by pasting the review up at the entrance of the exhibition, and Streeton recalled that ‘the people thronged … to view the dreadful paintings, and the exhibits’. The artists also wrote a lengthy response to the paper defending their aims.


There was no precedent in the history of Australian art for artists grouping together to plan, promote and present an exhibition that reflected such a unified vision, and which aimed to engage the public with what was still widely regarded as bold new approach to painting.


Although only about one-third of the paintings survive today, the vivid impression that these paintings create of a moment in time, and the lively commentaries that surrounded their inaugural exhibition, ensure that the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition remains a celebrated event in Australian art history.


References and Further Reading

  • Clark, J & Whitelaw, B 1986, Golden Summers – Heidelberg and beyond, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
  • Lane, T 2007, ‘The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition – The Challenge of the Sketch‘, in Lane,T (ed) 2007 Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.