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Australia’s Impressionists: Colours and Landscapes at the National Gallery

Australia’s Impressionists are filling up the walls of the National Gallery’s Sunley Room. Forty-one paintings from four of the most innovative Australian Impressionist artists travelled to London on 7th December last year to show for the first time in this country how the language of contemporary European Impressionism was adapted by Australian artists at the end of the 19th century.

Australia’s Impressionists are filling up the walls of the National Gallery’s Sunley Room. Forty-one paintings from four of the most innovative Australian Impressionist artists travelled to London on 7th December last year to show for the first time in this country how the language of contemporary European Impressionism was adapted by Australian artists at the end of the 19th century.

With paintings from: Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909), and John Russell (1858-1930), including some of their most important masterpieces, they are warming London’s cold winter with Austral light and colour, providing a visual frame of reference for a country that had had been newly federated. They sought to capture Australian life, the bush and the harsh sunlight typical of the country.

Streeton’s Ariadne is a work of high quality and rarity, perhaps one of his most evocative works, which contributed to the development of landscape painting in Australia. The classical subject, lightly imposed upon an Australian beach, reflects an interesting aspect of Australian literature and art criticism in the 1890s, in the lead up to Federation, celebrating Australia—its climate, its sun, its beaches and the healthy, vital lifestyle it encompassed—as a kind of new Antipodean Mediterranean.

X9330 Arthur Streeton Ariadne, 1895 Oil on wood panel 12.7 x 35.4 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Members Acquisition Fund 2016 © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
X9330
Arthur Streeton
Ariadne, 1895
Oil on wood panel
12.7 x 35.4 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Members Acquisition Fund 2016
© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

A Holiday at Mentone is perhaps Charles Conder’s best known painting, described by some as a ‘critically acclaimed masterpiece of the Australian Impressionist style of painting’ and a ‘singularly Australian work’. It depicts several people on the beach in the Melbourne suburb of Mentone, under the bright noonday sunshine.

X9333 Charles Conder A Holiday at Mentone, 1888 Oil on canvas 46.2 x 60.8 cm Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide South Australian Government Grant with the assistance of Bond Corporation Holdings Limited through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation to mark the Gallery's Centenary 1981 © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
X9333
Charles Conder
A Holiday at Mentone, 1888
Oil on canvas
46.2 x 60.8 cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
South Australian Government Grant with the assistance of Bond Corporation Holdings Limited through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation to mark the Gallery’s Centenary 1981
© Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

The exhibition comes as the result of the National Gallery receiving the long-term loan of Streeton’s Blue Pacific in 2015, the first painting by an Australian artist to be displayed at the National Gallery (also exhibited in this show), and is organised in three sections.

L1177 Arthur Streeton Blue Pacific, 1890 Oil on canvas 91.4 × 50.8 cm Private collection © Courtesy of the owner
L1177
Arthur Streeton
Blue Pacific, 1890
Oil on canvas
91.4 × 50.8 cm
Private collection
© Courtesy of the owner

The first one, ‘Urban Australia’, is based on the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition held in 1889 in Melbourne. The title was inspired by the dimensions of most of the paintings (9 inches by five inches), many of them painted on cigar box lids, and it featured mainly the works by Australian Impressionists Roberts, Conder and Streeton, key figures of the Heidelberg School, as Australian Impressionism was first called. This works show fresh, sketch-like quality paintings achieved by working quickly using broad, bold brushstrokes of colour and tone.

Some of the works on display in this section are the small and exquisitely painted A Quiet Day on Darebin Creek, by Tom Roberts, where the measured application of paint and subtle use of tonal colours capture the reflection of light in the waters of the creek; and Hoddle St., 10 p.m. by Arthur Streeton, that shows how Streeton conveyed the atmospheric effects of twilight and half-light, depicting a Melbourne suburb a night in winter.

X9138 Tom Roberts A Quiet Day on Darebin Creek, 1885 Oil on wood panel 26.4 × 34.8 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1969 © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
X9138
Tom Roberts
A Quiet Day on Darebin Creek, 1885
Oil on wood panel
26.4 × 34.8 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1969
© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
X9143 Arthur Streeton Hoddle St.,10 p.m., 1889 Oil on cardboard 7.9 × 23.3 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1974 © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
X9143
Arthur Streeton
Hoddle St.,10 p.m., 1889
Oil on cardboard
7.9 × 23.3 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1974
© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Both Conder’s Coogee Bay, (X9153) and Robert’s Holiday Sketch at Coogee, (X9164) will also be included. These paintings were done in Sydney on the same day and from the same spot overlooking the bay, but each reveals the individual stylistic features of the two artists: Conder’s paler, more pastel palette, with pink notes, contrasts with the naturalism of Robert’s bolder palette.

X9153 Charles Conder Coogee Bay, 1888 Oil on cardboard 26.8 × 40.7 cm National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the Government of Victoria, 1979 © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
X9153
Charles Conder
Coogee Bay, 1888
Oil on cardboard
26.8 × 40.7 cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with the assistance of a special grant from the Government of Victoria, 1979
© National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
X9164 Tom Roberts Holiday Sketch at Coogee, 1888 Oil on canvas 40.3 × 55.9 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased 1954 © AGNSW
X9164
Tom Roberts
Holiday Sketch at Coogee, 1888
Oil on canvas
40.3 × 55.9 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased 1954
© AGNSW

The second section of the exhibition focuses on ‘National Landscape’. The growing sense of national identity of the newly federated country celebrating the centenary of the European settlement, was expressed by the artists’ desire to authentically represent the great Australian country and, in particular, the light. Streeton’s visions of the landscape defined an image of Australia, in particular: Fire’s On, considered his greatest evocation of the country’s heat and sunlight, capturing the moment when a worker dies in an explosion during the construction of a railway line across the Blue Mountains.

X9171 Arthur Streeton Fire’s On, 1891 Oil on canvas 183.8 × 122.5 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased 1893 © AGNSW
X9171
Arthur Streeton
Fire’s On, 1891
Oil on canvas
183.8 × 122.5 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased 1893
© AGNSW

The third section of Australia’s Impressionism is devoted to ‘John Russell’, the only Australian artist to be directly in touch with Monet and the mainstream French Impressionists in fin-de-siècle France. Russell was born and raised in Sydney, but spent most of his life as an expatriate in Europe; after studying in the Slade School of Fine Art, University College on London, he furthered his studies at Cormon’s atelier in Paris, where he trained alongside Vincent Van Gogh, Emile Bernard and Toulouse Lautrec, among others. He married and settled on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the coast of Brittany, attracted by the wild landscape and the unpredictable Atlantic Ocean. There, he met Claude Monet, an artist whom he greatly admired and whose influence was decisive, and Henri Matisse, whose style changed visibly after his time on the island working with Russell in a new understanding of colour theory.

X9329 John Russell Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île, about 1890 Oil on canvas 60.8 x 50.5 cm Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth
X9329
John Russell
Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Île, about 1890
Oil on canvas
60.8 x 50.5 cm
Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth
© Acorn Photo, Perth

In Belle-Île, he painted a number of key subjects on the island, such as Aiguille de Boton, Belle-Île, a watercolour depicting the Port-Coton needles, a distinctively shaped outcrop of rocks that rises from the water near the shore, very close to the artist’s home; or Rough Sea, Morestil, c. 1900, in which vigorous brushstrokes sweep across the canvas depicting foaming waves breaking into a coastline in deep shades of blue that frame the left side of the composition.

X9328 John Russell Rough Sea, Morestil, about 1900 Oil on canvas on hardboard 66 x 81.8 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased 1968 © AGNSW
X9328
John Russell
Rough Sea, Morestil, about 1900
Oil on canvas on hardboard
66 x 81.8 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased 1968
© AGNSW

Another important stay Russell made was in Moret, a small village south of Paris by the Loing River, where he stayed in a villa next door to Impressionist painter Alfred Sisley and made a number of paintings including Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, which shows Sisley’s wife, Marie, painted with the characteristic broken brushstrokes and high palette of the Impressionists.

X9172 John Russell Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, 1887 Oil on canvas 45.7 × 60.9 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Purchased with assistance from the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 1996 © AGNSW
X9172
John Russell
Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, 1887
Oil on canvas
45.7 × 60.9 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Purchased with assistance from the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 1996
© AGNSW

Russell’s wife died in 1908, and he was so overcome with grief that he destroyed 500 of his oils and watercolours. He returned to Sydney in 1921 only to die nine years later. Having spent most of his career overseas, his work was largely ignored by the Australian art establishment until the 1970’s, when he was rediscovered as ‘Australia’s lost Impressionist’.

Other great examples of Russell’s Impressionism on display are some of the works he painted during an artist’s winter stay in Antibes in 1890, where he intensively worked out of doors, studying the southern light and pursuing pure colour, moving away from the restraints of naturalistic form. Fine examples of this period are Antibes and In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, where he captures the sparkling surface of the intense blue-green sea, the bright sun on the golden-green grass and the distant mauve-blue mountains on the back.

X9173 John Russell Antibes, about 1890-2 Oil on canvas 16.5 × 24 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney Gift of the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 2012 © AGNSW
X9173
John Russell
Antibes, about 1890-2
Oil on canvas
16.5 × 24 cm
Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
Gift of the Margaret Hannah Olley Art Trust 2012
© AGNSW
X9139 John Russell In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, 1890-1 Oil on canvas 60.3 × 73.2 cm National Gallery of Australia, Canberra Purchased 1965 © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
X9139
John Russell
In the Morning, Alpes Maritimes from Antibes, 1890-1
Oil on canvas
60.3 × 73.2 cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Purchased 1965
© National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

The works on display in this unique exhibition of Australia’s Impressionists, organised by the National Gallery in collaboration with Art Gallery of New South Wales, have travelled to London from some of Australia’s leading public galleries, as well as private collections from Australia and the UK. It will be open to the public until 26th March 2017.

Australia’s Impressionists
7th December 2016 – 26th March 2017

www.nationalgallery.org.uk

National Gallery
Sunley Room
Trafalgar Square
London
WC2N 5DN

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