Australian (and other) impressionists

Earlier this year we went to an exhibition of California impressionists in Irvine, California, and today we’ve been to one of Australian impressionists in London. At the end of the 19th century en plein air painting and emerging national (or state) identities came together to send artists across the British Empire and other countries out into their countryside, bush, or cities to paint their own countries.

The London exhibition (imported from Australia) was in the three parts, and the first exhibited paintings from Australian impressionist painters ( Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, and Arthur Streeton) who came together to hold the first artist-organised exhibition in Australia. They had been inspired by the French impressionists and showed the people of Melbourne (then the second biggest city in the Empire) pictures like they’d never seen before. Many were painted on cigar boxes and might best be described as glimpses–spontaneous  airy images of ordinary people going about their lives.

The second part of the exhibition comprised paintings from rural Australia and was dominated by large pictures by Arthur Streeton, whom Lin and I agreed was the most talented of the painters. He was the first of the artists to exhibit at the Royal Academy, although he never achieved the success in London that he achieved in Australia (British snobbishness, I immediately concluded).


The painting I would have taken home from the exhibition showed a fire in a railway tunnel being built. The rocks of the cliff dominate, and it took both of us a while to see the tiny people. Is it fanciful to reflect that Australia is huge and largely depopulated? This picture and the one of a shepherd on horseback introduced the intense blues and pale yellows and ochres that, so a film told us, became the standard colours of Australian landscape painting.


Lin would have taken home a wonderful picture of a river running into the distance. You can feel the space and the sunlight.


The third part of the exhibition featured the paintings of John Russell, “the lost impressionist” who left Australia when he was young, hobnobbed with artists like Manet, Van Gogh, and Rodin, mentored Matisse, and returned to Australia to die in obscurity. All of his paintings are of France, and they have the richer and wilder colours and greater abstraction of post-impressionism. The curator said in the film that his paintings were included to raise questions about identity, but I think that the answer is too easy–he was a European painter who happened to be born in Australia.

At the exhibition Lin and I were reminded of the Scottish Colourists, who painted Scotland en plein air.  The Glasgow Boys had done so earlier, even before the French impressionists. The Colourists came after the Australian impressionists and were strongly influenced by post-impressionism.



On returning to my computer I’ve tracked down impressionists from other countries building national identities at the same time. They come from New Zealand, Canada, California, South Africa, Ireland, and Argentina. See if you can work out which is which.



2 thoughts on “Australian (and other) impressionists

  1. I was interested to see Richard link nationalist political movements with the adoption of post-impressionism as an artistic style. I guess nationalism was one of the dominant strains of nineteenth century political thought, and post-impressionism – at least from 1886 – the go-to style for the artistic avant garde. That some art with nationalist content drew stylistic inspiration from the post-impressionists shouldn’t therefore surprise.

    But Richard’s mention of the Glasgow Boys sparked off another thought. The catalogue of the Australian exhibition spoke of the powerful influence of the naturalist artist, Jules Bastien-Lepage, on the Australian artists. I remembered that the catalogue of the Glasgow Boys exhibition at the Royal Academy (2010-11) said that they had embraced forms of naturalism practised by Bastian-Lepage and others. At the time, I can remember thinking: “now I know where the late nineteenth century Australian artists got their style from.”

    It makes me want to see a “proper” exhibition devoted to Bastien-Lepage. I don’t think I’d like it very much, but I’m sure I’d find it interesting, given his wide ranging influence on other artists.


  2. The title of the painting Lin likes – “ the purple noon’s transparent might” – is a line from a poem by Shelley.

    But the painting’s invocation of all engulfing noonday heat reminds me of another poem, “Fire in the heavens,” by Australian poet, Christopher Brennan:

    Fire in the heavens, and fire along the hills,
    and fire made solid in the flinty stone,
    thick-mass’d or scatter’d pebble, fire that fills
    the breathless hour that lives in fire alone.

    This valley, long ago the patient bed
    of floods that carv’d its antient amplitude,
    in stillness of the Egyptian crypt outspread,
    endures to drown in noon-day’s tyrant mood.

    Behind the veil of burning silence bound,
    vast life’s innumerous busy littleness
    is hush’d in vague-conjectured blur of sound
    that dulls the brain with slumbrous weight, unless

    some dazzling puncture let the stridence throng
    in the cicada’s torture-point of song.

    I first encountered this poem at school, and the line “vast life’s innumerous busy littleness” still helps me put the frenetic demands of the day into some sort of perspective.


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