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16 Aug 11

Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed

Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck

The small intermit study Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 is an example of the oil sketches von Guérard painted in the landscape before his motif. Although the act of painting outdoors is more popularly associated with the later Impressionist movement, landscape artists from the eighteenth century had increasingly incorporated plein air studies as part of their preparation for final studio works.

Von Guérard was introduced to this practice during the 1830 and 40s while a student in Italy, and later at the Düsseldorf Academy in Germany – at that time, he would have been required to carry freshly prepared oil paint to the landscape using temporary containers made from skin bladders bound with string.

The subsequent invention of collapsible metal tubes by the English artist’s colour man Windsor and Newton provided a readily transportable commercial product suitable for distribution to remote colonies. After von Guérard’s arrival in Australia, the supply of the new ‘Artist colours, in tubes’ was still limited, but once procured they allowed him to paint on extended expeditions into the Australian landscape.

Rather than transporting bulky stretched canvases, he prepared his own painting supports by covering sheets of paper with a preparation layer formulated from lead white oil paint and chalk. The sheets were lightweight, flexible and easily transportable. Their surface was designed to be slightly absorbent to draw excess oil from the paint to accelerate its drying and allow a safe return to von Guérard’s Melbourne studio. Although the preparation layer was concealed by paint, the vertical striations created during its brushed application are visible in the x-radiograph of Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 shown below.

In the landscape, von Guérard cut his paper supports to a desired format, pinning them onto a board or the lid of his paint box to act as an in situ easel. Note the irregular cut edges to this narrow elongated sheet and the pin holes visible in the top-left and lower right corners of the x-ray.

Honeysuckles, Cape Schanck, 1873 was painted on top of windswept seaside cliffs that bordered a property where von Guérard stayed with close friends. It is a careful study of the local colour and vegetation at a specific place and time.

Inscribed in the top right is the date telling us that he painted this work on Sunday 18 January, 1873. Newspaper reports from that day recorded unusually hazy conditions and a hot northerly air flow which hampered local shipping. The overriding influence of moist sea air accounts for the suppressed tonality and subdued colour in the delicate brushwork, having forced von Guérard to forego the deep blue sky typical of his pictures.

Unfortunately most of von Guérard’s Australian plein air studies have not survived. This rare example is an important insight to his working method and the fieldwork undertaken to produce his major compositions such as Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865 which will be discussed in the next post.

Map of Cape Schanck