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Header: Australian Impressionism


Image above:
Aussie Bums
Convicts by Heritage, Guilty by Choice by aussieBum –


The paintings of the artists associated with Australian Impressionism are some of the most well-known and loved images in the history of Australian art. They are well represented in major public collections around Australia and they have been seen in many major touring exhibitions. Many people also know the paintings through reproductions in books and on a range of merchandise that includes greeting cards, notebooks, calendars, posters coffee mugs and jigsaw puzzles.


While many factors have contributed to the popularity of the work of the Australian Impressionists, the distinctly Australian quality of the images is often cited by audiences as a key to their appeal. The paintings reflect the nationalistic spirit of the time in which they were made, and have played a significant role in defining Australian identity since. Their role as signifiers of national identity has seen them both celebrated and critiqued in contemporary culture.

Advertising and popular culture

Image: Tom Roberts, Shearing the rams 1890

Tom Roberts
Shearing the rams 1890
oil on canvas on composition board
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1932

Image: ‘Convicts by Heritage, Guilty by Choice’ by aussieBum

Convicts by Heritage, Guilty by Choice



In the 1980s, On the wallaby track, 1896 by Frederick McCubbin was animated and used in a television advertisement for Kit Kat chocolate bars. The image of the weary woman resting with her young child, and the man in the distance boiling the billy to make tea, was a perfect match for the ‘have a break … have a Kit Kat’ campaign. Those old enough to remember this advertising campaign still refer to McCubbin’s painting as ‘the one on the Kit Kat ad’.


Shearing the rams, by Tom Roberts, was the inspiration for a more recent advertising campaign for ‘aussieBum’ underwear. In the advertisement, Roberts’s muscular male shearers are still hard at work – but in their undies. The designer, Sean Ashby, described his advertisement as ‘promoting what it means to be Australian today’ – an aim very close to Roberts’s own when he made Shearing the rams. Ashby explained further, ‘more of our iconic businesses and traditions like shearing are either being sold overseas or dying off … we wanted to remind people to value their heritage and buy Australian, in a cheeky way’. We can only speculate what Tom Roberts would think.



Image: 2007 Home Timber and Hardware calendar

Home Hardware Promotion
November 2007 Calendar
Depiction of Tom Roberts 1890 work Shearing the Rams.

In the 2007 calendar for ‘Home Timber and Hardware’, Roberts’ Shearing the rams is the only Australian work among 11 works by famous international artists (including Michelangelo, Leonardo da Vinci, van Gogh and Picasso). Each of the paintings featured in the calendar has been reworked to incorporate the ‘Home Timber and Hardware’ canine mascots. On the page for November 2007, a reworked version of Shearing the rams has two dogs doing the work of the two central shearers in Roberts’s painting, and one of them is seen shearing a sheep that sits in a barber’s chair.



Image: Michael Leunig, Ramming the shears, 1984

Michael Leunig
born Australia 1945
Ramming the shears
aniline dyes and black felt tip pen on white card
22.8 x 30.3 cm
La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria
Purchased, 1987 (H87.181)
© Michael Leunig

One of the most irreverent and clever reinterpretations of Shearing the rams is Ramming the shears, 1984 by Michael Leunig. Leunig is an astute observer of Australian society. His witty reinterpretation of Roberts’s paintings is both humourous and thought provoking in the questions it raises about Australian national identity. Ramming the shears first appeared in Leunig’s regular spot in ‘The Age’, but it gained wider circulation in 1985 when it was used on the cover of a book of Leunig’s cartoons.

image: decorative motif


Image: Marcus Beilby, Crutching the Ewes, 1987

Marcus Beilby
Australian 1951
Crutching the Ewes 1987
oil on canvas
State Bank Collection
Copyright Courtesy of the Artist

Artists have often copied the work of another artist to pay homage or to learn about the artist’s technique.  Australian artist Marcus Beilby (b. 1951) was inspired by the theme of Roberts’ Shearing the rams to create his own version of the painting. Beilby became well known in the early 1980s for his photo-realist style paintings. After spending two years in America (1982–84) he became very aware of regional differences in people and places. When he returned to Australia he created work with a distinctly local character that explored how people are shaped by their environment. Despite its title, the subject of Crutching the ewes is shearing – a contentious point for many shearers who view the painting. While the photorealist painting pays homage to Roberts, Beilby chose a quirky title for his painting in order to differentiate his work from the original. Crutching the ewes was joint winner of the Sulman prize for genre painting at the Art Gallery of NSW in 1987.

image: decorative motif

Contemporary art and appropriation

To appropriate something is to take possession of it. In contemporary art the term appropriation refers to the process of copying or quoting an existing artwork in order to make a new artwork. Artists often appropriate existing artworks because they want to comment on the visual qualities, ideas or meanings associated with the artwork they are copying. They achieve this by reworking or re-presenting the artwork they have appropriated.


Image: Anne Zahalka, The Immigrants 1985

Anne Zahalka
The Immigrants (second version), 1985
type C photograph
85.5 x 50 cm
edition of 5
Courtesy of the artist and Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Australian artist Anne Zahalka (b. 1957) has created several series of works in which she appropriated well-known Australian paintings to create new images. Immigrants 2 is from the series The Landscape Re-presented, which questioned the way that ideas about Australian national identity have been constructed and communicated in visual images. Immigrants 2, 1985 reworks The Pioneer, 1904 by Frederick McCubbin, a large-scale narrative painting in three parts that celebrates the hard work and achievements of ‘the pioneer’ in settling Australia. In her reworking of this image, Zahalka uses photomontage to place images of a Greek family, taken from a friend’s family album, against a bush background taken from a reproduction of McCubbin’s painting. Her inclusion of this family in McCubbin’s iconic image highlights the exclusion of people of diverse cultural backgrounds from many of the texts and images that have helped define national identity.


Image: Anne ZAHALKA, The Breakaway 1985

The Breakaway, 1985
type C photograph
edition of 5
Courtesy of the artist and
Roslyn Oxley9 Gallery

Image: Tom Roberts, A break away! 1891

Tom Roberts
A break away! 1891
oil on canvas
137.3 x 167.8 cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Elder Bequest Fund, 1899


Zahalka’s interest in creating images that highlight the exclusion of certain groups from the dominant stories and images that have defined our culture is also seen in Untitled, 1985 from the The Landscape Re-presented series. In this reinterpretation of A break away!, 1891 by Roberts, Zahalka has given the main character in the painting a gender change – a long, feminine plait indicates that it is a woman on horseback at the centre of the action, not a man as appears in Roberts’s painting. This reinterpretation of the original image is a reminder of how women have often been excluded, or cast in passive roles, in the iconic nationalistic images of the period.


Image: Dianne Jones, Shearing the rams, 2001

Dianne Jones
Shearing the rams, 2001
Inkjet on canvas, edition of 10
121.9 x 182.6cm
Copyright courtesy of the artist

Shearing the rams, 2001 by Dianne Jones (b. 1966) reflects a concern about the lack of representation of indigenous people in the iconic nationalistic images of Australian art. In her reinterpretation of Roberts’s painting, Jones refers to her Nyoongar culture, and her family’s involvement in the pastoral industry, by replacing the three central characters seen in the original painting with images of her father, brother and nephew.

image: decorative motif

References and Further Reading

  • Artist in focus 1: Marcus Beilby, Art Gallery of Western Australia, 1988.
  • Byrnes, H 2006, ‘Cheeky ad certainly not sheepish’, Daily Telegraph, 30 September, p. 11.
  • Dundas, W and Manning, G  2003, ‘Shearing the rams’, South West Central: Indigenous art from
  • South Western Australia 1833–2002, Education Kit, Public Programs, Art Gallery of Western Australia.
  • Hansen, D 2007, ‘National Naturalism’, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
  • Rogers, C (1988), ‘Artist puts a new light on his work’, Countryman, 28 April.
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