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The NGA’s maverick Impressionists

Unity Paterson

We more commonly associate Australian Impressionism with ‘safe art’ – the kind of art you go to see when you are with your grandparents.

The NGA explores art from this era in its new Australian Impressionism exhibition, proving the Impressionists were far more maverick than their oil paint creations let on.

At first glance, you would think that pictures of trees and shearing sheds, pastoral scenes and bushrangers are relics of history and not much else. Australian Impressionism, I have since learnt, was a radical awakening of Australian identity. This exhibition, coupled with the fantastic Defying Empire exhibition in the next room over, will teach you more than you ever knew you didn’t know about Australian history, and is something that should definitely be squeezed in to the school holiday calendar.

 Portrait of Florence c 1898 oil on canvas on paperboard 66.6 x 38.7 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney bequest of Florence Turner Blake 1959. Courtesy of the NGA.

Portrait of Florence, Tom Robertes, c 1898, oil on canvas on paperboard 66.6 x 38.7 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, bequest of Florence Turner Blake 1959. Courtesy of the NGA.

Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and their contemporaries devoted their practice to studying light, space and colour. Impressionism across Europe changed the way artists used colour to reflect mood, meaning paintings could become ‘impressions’ of a time and place. Impressionism in Australia used this logic and created a type of art that characterised a nation grappling with its own identity. It was a radically new form of depiction featuring more lively colours and robust brush strokes that seemed far more fitting than the pallette and delicacy of rolling English landscapes. These artists show Australia in the heroic narrative we now associate with the turn of the 20th century. These are the first European style works that depict Australia as home, rather than the mythical ‘ithica’ it was depicted as by artists such as John Glover, filled with alien flora and fauna.

Eugene von Guerard’s shadowy veranda in From the verandah of Purrumbete frames the gaze of the artist; the sun drenched paddocks in the fields beyond connote wealth and agricultural success, while the intricately painted balcony creates a sense of familiarity and domesticity. It feels like home.

'Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun's last look', Tom Roberts, c 1887, oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. W.H. Short Bequest, 1944. Courtesy of the NGA.

‘Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’, Tom Roberts, c 1887, oil on canvas 50.8 x 76.2. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. W.H. Short Bequest, 1944. Courtesy of the NGA.

Arthur Streeton’s Above us this great grave sky is a less commonly known, very underrated depiction of Eaglemont near Heidelberg, where the figureheads of the Impressionist movement spent many summers painting en plein air in an attempt to capture the vibrancy and vastness of Australia’s fantastic landscape. This work, truly an impression, depicts the lethargy of a warm summer evening, and sentimentally heralds the end of their time painting at Heidelberg. The artists’ brush is finally at home painting sunburnt grass and cragged gum trees.

After looking through these galleries, visit Defying Empire to have your entire perception of Australian history flipped on its head. Visiting the two together is a worthwhile experience because while they are two entirely different narratives of Australian history, the two work in tandem very happily.

Australian Impressionism has been given a facelift in 2017. The NGA is experimenting with new and interesting ways to curate a classic and well-loved narrative.

Feature image: Australian Art Galleries, National Gallery of Australia, 2015, courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia. 

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Unity Paterson

Unity originally hails from Sydney, making the leap to Australia’s capital to study at The Australian National University in 2014. Finding herself in the midst of an Art History degree, Unity remembered that she also had to pursue some other passions in her spare time, which led her to HerCanberra. She believes that Canberra has a lot to offer, and can’t wait to keep exploring as this cosy city grows each day; her ultimate goal being to finally convince her inter-state friends that Canberra is way more than just Lake Burley Griffin and roundabouts. More about the Author

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