The brilliant blues and dusty golds of Arthur Streeton’s finest paintings speak more to our times than the rugged masculinities of his friends in the Heidelberg School. Tom Roberts and Charles Conder were both English. While Roberts’ paintings, such as Shearing the Rams and A Break Away!, fed a nascent nationalist pride through the 20th century, Streeton brought the intimate vision of someone born in Australia.
It’s there in the bravura gestures, such as his dazzling blues of Sydney’s summer skies and waters. His luscious 1890 work Blue Pacific was the first Australian painting to be hung (on loan from a private collector and now returned) in London’s National Gallery in 2015. Curator Christopher Riopelle said the work demonstrated how Impressionism could confront the “awesome landscape unique to Australia”.
And it’s in the delicacy of Streeton’s minutest touches, such as the wildflowers in Spring, another 1890 painting. Get close to the lower right, where his signature is surrounded by emblematically discreet native blooms, and you’ll see scrupulousness at work.
The 150 paintings curated by Wayne Tunnicliffe for the Streeton retrospective at the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) include all his most famous early landscapes, such as Fire’s On! (1891), Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) and Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide (1890). The last of these was Streeton’s first painting to be purchased by a state gallery, the AGNSW, when he was only 23.
Less well-known works were made on a trip to Venice, where he honeymooned, and on a stopover in the Middle East from Sydney to London, where the cultural difference blew his Geelong boy’s mind. Some of the Venetian paintings are a species of deconstructed Canaletto, taking the softer European blues into account. His English paintings are also softer: pale greys in foggy London and darker greens against pale skies in rural landscapes.
His later Australian paintings have a stronger palette. Deeper hues bring seaside pictures to life and even his rural landscapes are less dominated by dried-out summer yellows, despite famous depictions such as Land of the Golden Fleece (1926), where you can see his influence on landscape painters such as Albert Namatjira.
Eventually Streeton returned to Melbourne, where his writings on art and the environment were widely read. Criticism of his apocalyptic predictions of environmental degradation – such as Sylvan Dam and Donna Buang, AD 2000 (1940) – will be recognisable today: The Age called it “propaganda”. The Bulletin, however, praised Streeton as “a fighter against one of his country’s greatest problem, erosion … the result of the ruthless and unscientific cutting down of forests”.
A curious anachronism pervades the exhibition: the assumption that Streeton’s work – and that of his friends – was always considered Impressionism. It’s an obvious assumption since their first, controversial show was called 9 x 5 Impressions. But the attribution didn’t stick.
In his magisterial 1966 book, The Art of Australia, Robert Hughes – like many other scholars – argued against seeing the Heidelberg School painters as Impressionists, insisting they didn’t conform to the French technique of breaking down colour and applying paint with quick, fractured brushstrokes.
In 1994 American art historian Norma Broude’s groundbreaking book, World Impressionism, made an incontrovertible argument for the movement elsewhere being more than pale imitations of Paris. Australian historian Virginia Spate wrote: “The underlying assumption is always that Australian art comes from somewhere else, from somewhere so far away – a sea voyage of at least six weeks – that there can be no relationship but one of provincialism.”
An ambition of the National Gallery of Victoria’s 2007 show Australian Impressionism was to position the painters securely within the movement and do away with the name Heidelberg School altogether. As curator Terry Lane pointed out, they were only briefly in Heidelberg, worked en plein air mostly in Box Hill, and would go on to paint in Sydney as well as Melbourne.
The Streeton exhibition is striking, and leaves no doubt that Robert Hughes’s complaints about Australian “Impressionism” have been finally laid to rest.
This article was first published in the print edition of The Saturday Paper on Nov 21, 2020 as "Scrupulous bravura".
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