Australia’s unique take on Impressionism is here represented by four major artists: Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, Arthur Streeton, and John Peter Russell. The first three were leading players of what became known as the Heidelberg School, which hit its stride around 1888, a time of a growing movement towards a federalisation of the colonies, and a sense of what it meant to be ‘Australian’, as the Australian-born population started to outnumber migrants.
With this more acutely felt sense of identity came a desire to capture more faithfully the Australian landscape, in particular the unique light. The landmark 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889 served to introduce Melbourne society to ‘Impressionism’ through around 180 ‘impressions’ or oil sketches, many of them painted on panels from cigar boxes of around 9 x 5 inches. Australian Impressionism is introduced as something quite different from French Impressionism, and one more under the influence of London’s avant-garde, and in particular Whistler, whose exhibition ‘Notes’ – ‘Harmonies’ – ‘Nocturnes’ Roberts had seen in 1884, and was a prototype for the 9 by 5.
Russell was born and died in Sydney, but spent some 40 years in Europe, fully embedded in the avant-garde; he was friends with Van Gogh, Monet and Gauguin, and his talents as a colourist made a deep impression on the young Matisse, but his reputation was only rediscovered in the second half of the 20th century.
Chris Riopelle is Curator of Post-1800 Paintings at the National Gallery, London.
Timothy Bonyhady is an Australian lawyer, cultural historian and author. He is Professor of Law at ANU College of Law.
Allison Goudie is Harry M. Weinrebe Curatorial Assistant at the National Gallery, London.
Sarah Thomas is Lecturer in the Art of the Nineteenth Century at Birkbeck, University of London.
Alex Taylor is Professor of History of Art at University of Pittsburgh.
Wayne Tunnicliffe is Head Curator, Australian Art at Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.