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Header: Australian Impressionism


Tom Roberts
Shearing the rams
(detail) 1890
oil on canvas on composition board
122.4 x 183.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1932


We cannot … urge too strongly … how requisite it is that we should as soon as possible fill our National Gallery with representative works of our artists and our nation, its early historical scenes, and pictures of the true rude life that must have and did exist in the early days of the colony.
‘Tusque’, ‘The National Gallery: “On the Line”’ Australian Magazine, July 1886, p. 138

In the decade of Australia’s centenary of European settlement, a confluence of factors led to the development of strong nationalistic feeling, and fostered intense reflection and discussion about Australian history, culture and identity.


Julian Ashton, In the Shearing Shed 1883

Julian Ashton
In the Shearing Shed
from Melbourne: David Syme and Co
La Trobe Picture Collection -
State Library of Victoria

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, with a particular emphasis on rural and pioneering subjects. The stories and poetry of Henry Lawson (1867–1922) and Banjo Paterson (1864–91) celebrated the ‘Australian’ values of stoicism, resourcefulness, independence, egalitarianism and freedom that grew out of the hardships of life in the bush. The way in which the extremes and isolation typical of bush life ‘shaped’ the Australian character is powerfully told in Henry Lawson’s story, The Drover’s Wife. Lawson was also a frequent contributor the Sydney newspaper, The Bulletin, known for its position on egalitarianism, unionism and ‘Australianism’. Banjo Paterson’s poetry communicated a more ‘romantic’ view of the adventure of Australian bush life, expressed in such famous poems as The Man from Snowy River. Poems such as The Geebung Polo Club conveyed the humour and spirit of larrikinism that became identified with the Australian character. The black and white illustrated press brought scenes of bush life to a city audience with images such as In the shearing shed published in the Sydney Mail in December 1883.


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

Nationalism and Australian Impressionism


The plein-air landscape paintings of Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin, Jane Sutherland and many others, in which the artists sought to capture the light, colour and character of the local landscape were strongly associated with the development of ‘a national school of Australian painting’. However, by the late 1880s discussion about the need for Australian artists to treat distinctly Australian themes had intensified and Roberts urged fellow artists to leave ‘the suburban bush’ and ‘paint the national life of Australia’.


Conder, who arrived in Australia in 1884 and departed for Europe in April 1890, never to return, did not show the same interest in national themes as his colleagues. Roberts and Streeton travelled ‘outback’, including to remote locations in NSW, in search of new subject matter. As family commitments kept McCubbin in Melbourne, he staged his ‘national’ pictures in more local settings such as Box Hill and Macedon. Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin all completed some of their most ambitious work in the late 1880s and 1890s. They worked on a larger scale than ever before, to create images of the landscape and bush life that were increasingly heroic in spirit and which reflected values that were emerging as integral to Australia’s national identity, including freedom, egalitarianism, resourcefulness and mateship. The subsequent reception and history of these paintings reflects the important role that they played in both reflecting and defining Australia’s national identity.

image: decorative motif

Frederick McCubbin – inspired by history

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

McCubbin in his present picture, ‘Down on His Luck’ has left all his former work far behind, and raises expectation in no ordinary degree as to what he will yet accomplish. The scene represents a forest glade, with the evening shadows gradually stealing over the trees, and causing them, as they recede into the forest, to be enshrouded in faint grey mist. In the foreground is a human figure seated on the ground, after the style of a bushman, and yet conveying the idea that he has once been far different. The face tells of hardships keen and blighting in their influence, but there is a nonchalant and slightly cynical expression, which proclaims the absence of all self pity … McCubbin’s picture is thoroughly Australian in spirit.
Table Talk, 26 April 1889


Down on his luck is one of the first of a series of large-scale figure paintings by McCubbin, inspired by Australia’s early history. The painting depicts an unlucky gold prospector contemplating his future as he sits by a small campfire. The figure sits deep in thought, in a pose traditionally used to express melancholy, his head supported by one hand. The muted tones of the surrounding bush reflect his sombre and contemplative mood.


The theme of the unsuccessful gold prospector had precedents in various images of gold miners in Colonial art and the illustrated press. Among the best known of these are the illustrations made by S.T. Gill (1818–80) on the goldfields in the 1850s, such as Bad results, 1852. The interest in images and stories related to gold reflects the importance of gold in the early development and growth of the colony, and in the prosperity of ‘Marvellous Melbourne’.


At the time that McCubbin painted Down on his luck the freedom of the independent prospector was becoming a thing of the past. From the 1860s, most miners worked for the big companies that increasingly controlled the mining industry, rather than for themselves. For many Australians, however, the figure of the individual prospector struggling for a lucky break, and eking out an existence in the bush, remained a potent symbol of hope and freedom. Despite his apparent failure and meagre material possessions, the character in Down on his luck still has independence and dignity in the simple honest life he lives in the bush.


The distinctive bush clothing, billy, campfire and rolled up blanket were typical of a range of itinerant workers in the bush, and allow the image to suggest a more universal meaning. For city workers, living and working in crowded, dirty conditions, McCubbin’s image of the prospector/swagman/bush worker, offered an alternative to the oppressive poverty experienced in the slums of Melbourne. Although the bushman is ‘down on his luck’, he has a certain nobility. He is his own man, independent of the demands of a ‘boss’, he breathes the fresh air of the bush and is free to make his own decisions. He is ‘down on his luck’ but the possibility that tomorrow will be a better day is left open.


This romantic view of bush life reflected in Down on his luck had wide appeal and currency in the late nineteenth century and played an important role in the development of Australia’s national identity. The reality however was that work and life in the bush were often harsh and increasingly governed by the social and economic structures traditionally associated with work and life in the urban environment.
McCubbin worked on Down on his luck at Box Hill where he had earlier painted en plein air with Roberts. The model for the painting was his friend and fellow artist Louis Abrahams (1852–1903). In this and other major figure compositions, McCubbin followed the example of the French painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848–84) and other artists associated with Naturalism. These artists combined aspects of more progressive art practice, such as painting on the spot using a painterly impressionistic technique to record the light, colour and atmosphere of the landscape, with more traditional academic working methods. An academic painting technique is evident in the clearly defined and modelled form of the figure in Down on his luck andsuggests that this part of the painting involved some work in the studio.

image: decorative motif

Tom Roberts – celebrating rural labour

Tom Roberts, Shearing the rams 1890

Tom Roberts
Shearing the rams 1890
oil on canvas on composition board
122.4 x 183.3 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Felton Bequest, 1932

… being in the bush and feeling the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work I have tried to express it. If I was a poet instead of a worker with the brush, I should have described the scattered flocks on the sunlit plains and gum-covered ranges, the coming of spring, the gradual massing of the sheep towards that one centre, the woolshed, through which the accumulated growth and wealth of the year is carried…but being circumscribed by my art it was only possible to take one view...So, lying on piled up wool bales, and hearing and seeing the troops come pattering into their pens, the quick running of the wool carriers, the screwing of the presses, the subdued hum of the hard, fast working and the rhythmic click of the shears, the whole lit warm with the reflection of Australian sunlight, it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble enough and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit – of strong masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year’s growth is being stripped from them for man’s use, and the great human interest of the whole scene.
Tom Roberts, letter to the editor, The Argus, 4 July 1890


During the 1890s, Roberts completed several major figure paintings, including Shearing the rams, 1890, which celebrate work and life in rural Australia.

Tom Roberts, First sketch for Shearing the Rams 1890

Tom Roberts
First sketch for Shearing the rams 1890
gouache and pencil on brown paper on cardboard
22.0 x 29.9 cm (image and sheet)
Purchased, 1974
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne


Roberts visited ‘Brocklesby’ station, near Corowa, New South Wales during the shearing season of spring 1888 to begin work on Shearing the rams. He made between seventy and eighty on-the-spot sketches of ‘the light, the atmosphere, the sheep, the men and the work’, before returning the following shearing season to work on the canvas on location. The painting was eventually completed in his Grosvenor Chambers studio in the city. This extended working process clearly contrasts to that which Roberts adopted for the rapidly executed small-scale ‘impressions’ he was making around the same time for the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.


Roberts’s interest in expressing ‘… the great pastoral life and work…the meaning and spirit – of strong masculine labour … the patience of the animals … the great human interest’ led him to draw on his academic art training and his knowledge of European art as much as first-hand observations of his subject in making Shearing the rams. He paid a young local girl, Susie Bourne, to model as the tar-boy, but he also based the pose of the young wool boy who enters the scene on the far left of the painting, on that of the figure of Esau on the doors designed by Lorenzo Ghiberti for the Florence Baptistery (1425–52). This and other references to art historical sources in Shearing the rams suggests Roberts’s desire to elevate his subject beyond the everyday to create an image with wider meaning and significance.


Like his colleague McCubbin, Roberts’s work reflects the influence of the artists associated with Naturalism, such as Jules Bastien-Lepage, who honoured regional life and work by depicting everyday rural subjects with a dignity and nobility traditionally associated with academic history painting. Like them, Roberts combined aspects of more progressive art practice, such as a painterly impressionistic technique, with more traditional academic working methods, in Shearing the rams.


A direct painterly technique associated with Impressionism is visible in the glimpses of brilliantly lit landscape visible through the rear door and side window of the shearing shed, and in areas such as the creamy expanse of shorn wool in the foreground of the painting. The formal composition, framed by the young boy gathering the fleece on the left and the older man squatting on the right reflects Roberts’s academic training. This training is also seen in Roberts’s understanding of anatomy and the tonal modelling of the figures.   


A comparison between Shearing the rams and the illustration of shearing from the Sydney Mail in 1883 reveals some of the complexities of Roberts’s composition. In both images the perspective lines in the architecture of the shed and the receding line of shearers create a strong sense of three-dimensional space. However, in Roberts’s composition there is a greater variety of characters and the pose and placement of each of the figures has been carefully orchestrated to create a composition of great visual unity and harmony. This reflects Roberts’s interest in expressing the meaning and spirit of his subject – rather than merely describing it.


The shearer in the centre front of Shearing the rams is a strong focal point within the composition. He is depicted with back bent and muscles tensed as he holds down a struggling ram and strips it of the snowy white fleece that spills across the foreground of the painting. This figure encapsulates the ideas that Roberts wanted to express about the nobility of strong, masculine labour and the productive relationship between man and nature in the bush.


The other characters in the painting also contribute to this theme. The shearers bent over the animals, and the figure on the left who carries in a large ram ready for shearing, reinforce the idea that shearing is hard physical work but that the men are strong and capable. The variety of ages and activities represented in the scene adds visual interest, but it is also important to how Roberts constructs and expresses meaning in the painting. It suggests that the shearing shed is a fair and democratic working environment where everyone works together as a team, and does work appropriate to their age. The range of activities, from the ram being brought in for shearing, to the wool being sorted and baled at the back of the shed, represents the whole wool cycle and again highlights the productive relationship between man and nature in the bush.


Roberts was no doubt attracted to shearing as a distinctly Australian subject because Australia had become the world’s largest wool producer by the 1870s. However, at the time Roberts was working on the painting the wool industry was facing significant changes. Mechanical shears had begun to replace hand shears, and there was growing unrest in the industry about working conditions and pay rates for shearers leading to the shearers’ strikes. The loss of international markets contributed to the economic difficulties faced by the wool industry in the1890s. In Shearing the rams, however, Roberts celebrates manual labour, and constructs a scene that focuses on the unity between the workers and between ‘man’ and nature.


image: decorative motif

Arthur Streeton – the heroic landscape

Single Image

Arthur Streeton
Fire’s on 1891
oil on canvas
183.8 x 122.5 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased, 1893

I want to stay here [Australia] but not in Melb. If I can raise the coin I intend to go straight inland (away from polite society) and stay there 2 or 3 years and create some things entirely new, and try and translate some of the great hidden poetry that I know is here, but have not seen or felt.
Arthur Streeton, letter to Tom Roberts mid 1891 quoted in Robert Henderson Croll Smike to Bulldog, Letters from Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, Ure Smith, Sydney, 1946


In 1891 Streeton spent several months in the Blue Mountains, New South Wales. During this time he made a number of sketches, watercolours and the largest oil painting he had worked on to date, Fire’s on, 1891, inspired by the new railway tunnel that was being blasted and cut though the sandstone cliffs and rocks at Lapstone.


The title of Fire’s on was inspired by the call of the ganger that preceded a blast and which warned the workers to take cover. On 17 December, while Streeton was working at the scene, perched on sandstone rock overlooking the railway cutting, there was a fatality when one of the blasts exploded prematurely.

… all is serene as I work & peg away … 12 o’clock … & now I hear ‘Fire! Fire’s on!’, from the gang close by … BOOM! & then rumbling of rock. The navvy under the rock with me, & watching, says, ‘Man killed’ … more shots & crashing rock we peep over; he lies all hidden bar his legs. All the shots are now gone except one, and all wait, not daring to go near; then men, nippers, and a woman hurry down, … and they raise the rock and lift him on to the stretcher, fold his arms over his chest, and slowly six of 'em carry him past me.
Letter to Roberts, 17 December 1891


Fire’s on depicts the body being removed from the scene, at the mouth of the cutting, but the human drama is overshadowed by the visual drama of the brilliant blue sky and the sun bleached rocky landscape. The sheer scale of the vertical landscape relative to the diminutive figures also adds to the heroic power of the landscape in this painting.


In a letter to McCubbin in October 1891, before he started his major oil painting, Streeton revealed his awe for the landscape, and his intention to try and capture it in a major oil painting. He  described  the cutting as

gaping like a great dragon’s mouth at the perfect flood of hot sunlight’ and the rock as a perfect blazing glory of white, orange, cream and blue streaks here and there where the blast has worked its force … I’ll soon begin a big canvas (oilcolour) of this. I think it looks stunning.


Contemporary critics greatly admired Fire’s on, both for its evocative representation of the intense heat, light and colour of the Australian landscape, and for what it symbolised about the progress of the new nation.

image: decorative motif

References and Further Reading

  • Hansen, D 2007, ‘National Naturalism’ in Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria. Melbourne.
  • Astbury, L 1985, City Bushmen – The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology, Oxford University Press, Melbourne.
  • Clark, J & Whitelaw, B 1985, Golden summers – Heidelberg and beyond, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
  • Radford, R 1996, Tom Roberts, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
  • Smith, G 1995, Arthur Streeton 1867–1943, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
  • Thomas, D (ed) 1988, Creating Australia – 200 Years of Art International Cultural Corporation of Australia Limited and in association with the Art Gallery Board of South Australia.
  • Whitelaw, B (ed.) 1991, The art of Frederick McCubbin, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
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