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Header: Australian Impressionism


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Jane Sutherland

Field naturalists (detail) (c.1896)
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mrs E. H. Shackell, 1962


Exploring art with a gender focus includes considering how artworks, artists and the construction of art history have been influenced by gender issues. Following are some starting points for considering gender as a focus for exploring Australian Impressionism.

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Jane Sutherland and Australian Impressionism

The exhibition Australian Impressionism presents the work of Jane Sutherland alongside that of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder. The male artists of this group are widely recognised for the important role that they played in the development of a local Impressionist style and a distinctly Australian art. Their achievements have been extensively documented and celebrated in many exhibitions and books, and their art is well represented in major public collections. Sutherland was a close colleague of the male artists, and created work that reflects similar interests and qualities, but she is the least well-known of the five artists. This may be partly due to the fact that she produced less work than her male colleagues, but it can also be related to social conditions that, in the past, restricted women’s personal and working lives and often failed to recognise their achievements.

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Women, art and society in the nineteenth century

By the 1890s, the women’s movement was well established in Australia and there was active campaigning for equal rights and social reform for women. Between 1894 and 1908, female citizens in all states and territories gained the right to vote. The reality for many women, however, was that family and marriage were to remain the focus of their lives, and women who wished to pursue a professional career or live independently faced many obstacles.


The University of Melbourne, which opened in 1855, did not admit women until 1880, and then in small numbers. By contrast, the National Gallery School accepted significant numbers of female students after it opened in 1870. For many of these young women, however, painting and drawing skills, alongside a talent for other artistic pursuits, such embroidery and music, were seen as desirable accomplishments rather than the basis of a career.

Jane Sutherland – professional practice


Image: George Sutherland, Jane Sutherland c. 1880

George Sutherland
Jane Sutherland c. 1880
Pencil Sketch

Jane Sutherland attended classes at the National Gallery School between 1871 and 1886, and was clearly committed to pursuing a professional career as an artist. She was among the students who fought to improve the teaching standards at the fledgling school. After male students organised their own life drawing sessions in 1882, Sutherland joined other female students in campaigning for life drawing for the female students. (The students clearly recognised that life drawing skills were necessary to be able to make the large-scale figure paintings that were highly valued within academic art).


Sutherland began exhibiting professionally in1878 and was an active participant in the lively Melbourne art scene. She was a member of the Buonarotti Society, which met regularly between 1883-87 for ‘the purpose of promoting Literature, Art and Music’. She was the only female member to chair a meeting of the Society. In 1900 she became the first woman to be elected to the Council of the Victorian Artists’ Society. Teaching was an important part of Sutherland’s professional life for nearly two decades. At one time she had two studios in the city, including one in Grosvenor Chambers (where Roberts also had his studio) for her own practice, and another where she gave private art lessons.


Like her better known colleagues, Sutherland was actively involved in the plein air movement and adopted an Impressionist technique. She worked at the well-known artists’ camps that were established at Box Hill and Heidelberg in the1880s, but contemporary morality meant that it was unacceptable for a respectable woman to spend the night at the camps. Recent technical examinations of her paintings have revealed a gradual build up of form and colour that suggests she may have completed her paintings in the studio from sketches or preparatory work done en plein air. She may have adopted this working method because of the practical difficulties associated with carrying painting equipment and wet paintings on day trips to the bush.


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Jane Sutherland – professional recognition

Although Sutherland’s work reflects the same interests and qualities as that of her male colleagues, it has not always been equally recognised or valued. Her paintings sold for significantly less than those of her male colleagues, and her work was not represented in public collections until 1962 when a major work, Field naturalists, c.1896, was given as a gift to the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1972 another three Sutherland paintings entered the collection as a gift from the artist’s niece. Around this time feminism caused a surge of interest in the work of women, and new research, exhibitions and publications recognised and celebrated the achievements of women artists, including artists of the past, such as Sutherland.

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Australian Impressionism – a story of male mateship and camaraderie

The early histories of the development of Impressionism in Australia were dominated by the experience and achievements of the male artists, notably Streeton, Conder, Roberts and McCubbin. Streeton himself helped create a narrative of the period dominated by the male artists when he wrote about it as an art critic for the Argus in the 1930s, without mentioning the involvement of women, such as Sutherland. Subsequent historians drew on Streeton’s account and the nostalgic reminiscences of the period expressed in the extensive correspondence of Streeton, Conder and Roberts. The artists’ letters highlight the male camaraderie and mateship that existed at the artists’ camps. When women are mentioned in these letters it is generally in relation to their social visits, not in the context of any serious work.

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Art history and ‘artistic genius’ – gendered constructs

In the past western art history was constructed as a story of the achievements of ‘great male artists’ so it is hardly surprising that the early histories of Australian Impressionism should also follow this model. Underpinning the exalted status of selected male artists in western art history was often a belief in ‘artistic genius’, or natural and superior talent, and that ‘artistic genius’ was exclusive to males. Although he later changed his opinion, Streeton once echoed these beliefs, and provided a hint of the challenges that his female artists of the period must have endured when he wrote ‘no woman was ever Shakespeare, or Wagner or Michelangelo’.


In the 1970s feminism systematically challenged many of the social and artistic values and beliefs that marginalised women, including the idea of ‘male artistic genius’ and the gendered construction of art history. It also presented new perspectives on the art of the past that recognised the achievements of women artists, such as Sutherland. However, Sutherland was one of a significant number of women artists before this time who effectively challenged such values and beliefs during her own lifetime through a passionate and professional commitment to her art.

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National identity and gender

Image: Jane Sutherland On the last tramp (1888)

Jane Sutherland
On the last tramp (1888)
oil on canvas on board
38.5 x 82.3 cm
Private collection, Western Australia

Image: Frederick McCubbin, Down on his luck 1889

Frederick McCubbin
Down on his luck 1889
oil on canvas
145.0 x 183.3 x 14.0 cm (framed)
State Art Collection,
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
Purchased, 1896


The heroic landscapes and figure compositions made by Streeton, Roberts and McCubbin in the late 1880s and 1890s are among the most well-known and loved paintings in Australian art. These paintings, including Fire’s on Lapstone Tunnel, 1891 by Streeton, Down on his luck, 1889 by McCubbin and Shearing the rams, 1890 by Roberts, were made in response to the surge of nationalistic spirit that swept the country around the time of the centenary of European settlement and in the lead up to Federation.


A strong sense of national identity developed during this period. Although most Australians lived in cities, it was the bush and bush life that were seen as uniquely Australian and integral to the nation’s identity. Expressions of national identity in the art, literature and popular culture of the period, focused on stories and images of the bush and bush life. There was a strong emphasis on male experience in these expressions of national identity, clearly evident in subjects that included shearers, miners, swagmen, bushrangers and remote rural landscapes that few women in the nineteenth century would have accessed. Values that came to define the national character, such as independence, free spirit, hard work, mateship, loyalty, egalitarianism, the right to ‘a fair go’ and resourcefulness, were represented through images and stories of men’s experience of the bush and bush life. When women were included in these representations it was usually in a secondary role that reinforced the idea that a woman’s life revolved around home and family.


Sutherland had a personal and professional interest in the bush. She and her brother were active members of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria and studied the native flora and fauna on many excursions into the landscape. Apart from trips to the famous Box Hill and Heidelberg artists’ camps, Sutherland worked en plein air at many other locations, often with her students. She frequently focused on women and children in the landscape, but On the last tramp, 1888 depicts a swagman, and predates McCubbin’s similarly themed Down on his luck, 1889.


Her paintings were recognised and admired by contemporary critics for their Australian qualities, and provide a valuable insight into the female experience of bush and bush life in the nineteenth century. However, in the construction of Australia’s national identity it was the male experience of the bush that emerged as dominant and it is the paintings that most strongly reflect this perspective that have captured the popular imagination and assumed iconic status in Australian art history.


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A feminine art?

Image: Frederick McCubbin,  Lost 1886

Frederick McCubbin Lost 1886
oil on canvas
115.8 x 73.9 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Image: Jane Sutherland, Field naturalists (c.1896)

Jane Sutherland
Field naturalists (c.1896)
oil on canvas
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Mrs E. H. Shackell, 1962


There has often been debate about whether particular subjects or artistic qualities can be defined as distinctly feminine or masculine. Comparisons between the work of Sutherland and the work of her male contemporaries reflect some of the complexities of this debate.


Sutherland’s interest in depicting women and children in the settled and domestic rural landscape has often been linked to her gender. This subject matter was easily accessible to Sutherland at a time when social restrictions made it difficult for a female artist to travel to a remote rural location and/or to work in a shearing shed as Tom Roberts did for Shearing the Rams 1890. However male artists, including McCubbin and Conder, also painted women and children in the landscape. More generally it was a common theme in the work of many international plein air artists including French impressionists such as Monet.


The women and children in Sutherland’s paintings are often in settled domesticated spaces of the bush, enclosed by fences, with the untamed bush in the distance. Some observers have seen this as symbolic of the social confinement of women in the nineteenth century. However, the figures in Sutherland’s paintings generally appear very ‘at home’ in the landscape. In Field naturalists, 1896, three young children stand with bare feet in a pond, intent on exploring their environment. In this and other paintings by Sutherland the harmonious colours and the overall texture of the paint surface visually and symbolically integrate the figures into the landscape. In Lost, 1886 by McCubbin the subject matter of the lost girl reflects a very different relationship with the bush to that in Field naturalists. The clearly defined form of the girl in Lost contrasts sharply with the soft tones used to describe the surrounding vegetation and emphasises the young girl’s isolation in the bush environment.


Jane Sutherland
The mushroom gatherers (c.1895)
41.8 x 99.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Gift of Dr Margaret Sutherland, 1972


While Sutherland tends to depict women and children quietly going about their lives and work in the bush, many of the images by her male colleagues emphasise a heroic frontier spirit as men battle to settle or make a living from the land. The emphasis on ‘strong masculine labour’ in Shearing the rams by Roberts makes an interesting contrast to the gentle and poetic mood that prevails  in The mushroom gatherers, c. 1895 by Sutherland. While the women and children in Sutherland’s paintings actively engage with their bush environment, the women in many of the images by male artists are more passive. In On the wallaby track, 1896 by McCubbin the active role of boiling the billy is taken on by the male figure, while the woman rests with her child, creating an idealised and romantic image of motherhood. In paintings by Conder, such as Springtime, 1888 and Near Heidelberg,1890 by Streeton the women provide a romantic and decorative flourish to the landscape. Their long white muslin dresses clearly indicate that they are visitors in the landscape.


Frederick McCubbin
On the Wallaby Track 1896
oil on canvas
122.0 x 223.5 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased, 1897

Image: Charles Conder, Springtime 1888

Charles Conder
Springtime 1888
44.3 x 59.1 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1941

Image: Arthur Streeton, Near Heidelberg 1890

Arthur Streeton
Near Heidelberg 1890
oil on canvas
53.7 x 43.3 c
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1943


Frances Lindsay has noted the use of ‘a palette of mixed blues, burnt earth pigments, madder and violet’ and Sutherland’s favouring of the mauve and purple tones, which had been developed mid century, in several paintings including Field naturalists and The mushroom gatherers. The colour range that characterise Sutherland’s works clearly contrasts with the more naturalistic colour schemes employed by many of her male colleagues at the time, including Roberts in Shearing the rams, and has often been seen as reflecting a ‘feminine aesthetic’; however, it may equally reflect an interest in artistic experimentation and innovation. Other artists of the period, including McCubbin in his late work and the French Impressionists, created paintings with colour schemes dominated by blues, lavenders and pinks, that were seen as innovative rather than feminine.

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References and Further Reading

  • Ambrus, C 1992, Australian women artists – First fleet to 1945: History, hearsay and her say, Irrepressible Press, Woden, ACT.
  • Burke, J 1986, Australian women artists 1840–1940, Greenhouse Publications, Richmond, Victoria.
  • Galbally, A & Grey, A (Eds) ) 1989, Letters from Smike: The Letters of Arthur Streeton, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
  • Hammond, V & Peers, J 1992, Completing the picture – Women artists and the Heidelberg era, Artmoves, Hawthorn East, Victoria
  • Lindsay, F 2007, ‘Jane Sutherland:Thoroughly Australian Landscapes’, in Lane,T (ed) 2007 Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
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