During the nineteenth century, the term Impressionism referred to a type of art that was fresh and painterly (a loose style of painting where the brushstrokes are visible) with an informal sketch-like quality. It was applied to the work of some artists who painted en plein air (a French term for outdoors) and was widely used to describe the work of a growing number of artists from many parts of the world including England, the United States, Italy and Australia.
Today, however, Impressionism is often more narrowly associated with French Impressionism, a movement comprising French plein-air artists who worked in and around Paris in the 1860s and 1870s, including Claude Monet (1840–1926), Alfred Sisley (1839–1899) and Camille Pissarro (1830–1903). Their painting style incorporated bold, visible brushstrokes and a sense of spontaneity. French Impressionism is also commonly associated with bright chromatic colours and broken brushwork, making it quite distinct from the academic style that was more widely practised and understood in the early nineteenth century.
The Impressionist movement took shape in Australia when artists such as Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917), Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909), Jane Sutherland (1853–1928) and Clara Southern (1860–1940) started painting en plein air. Australian Impressionist artists were interested in French plein-air painters’ work and techniques, but also in producing paintings that looked ‘distinctly Australian’. These artists painted life in the city and the bush, and at coastal sites, all easily accessible on the newly developed suburban rail network.
Many Australian Impressionists were influenced by the European Impressionists, after having trained, worked and travelled in Europe for many years. Those who returned to Australia during the late nineteenth century brought with them their firsthand experiences of international art and the plein-air movement.
- What do you already know about Impressionism? Does the name of this movement give you some insights into what sort of work you might see?
- What are the similarities between French Impressionism and Australian Impressionism? What are the differences?
- What insights about Australian life can we gain from looking at the works of Australian Impressionist artists? Why do you think they are an important part of Australian history? What might be missing from these representations of Australian life?