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Impressionism from down under

12 December, 2016 — By John Evans

Arthur Streeton, The National Game, 1889, oil on cardboard, 11.8 x 22.9cm.
© AGNSW Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Purchased 1963

THERE’S an evocative photograph of one of “Australia’s Impressionists” in the National’s new exhibition of that name.

It’s of Arthur Streeton painting “en plein air” at Sirius Cove, Sydney Harbour, in the early 1890s. He’s dressed as though he could be one of Cezanne’s card players, and has a relaxed, seated, position with what looks like a bit of driftwood acting as a makeshift easel.

A collaboration with Art Gallery of New South Wales, the show is the first in the UK to focus on this group and offers 41 paintings by Streeton (1867-1943), Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Charles Conder (1868-1909) & John Russell (1858-1930).

Inspiration for the show came as a result of the National receiving a long-term loan of Streeton’s Blue Pacific, the first painting by an Australian artist to be displayed there.

Gallery director Gabriele Finaldi said: “Australian painters at the end of the 19th century were deeply interested in how the language of contemporary European Impressionism could be adapted to the Australian landscape and Australian subject matter. The process produced some striking and original results.”

A first section of the show looks at the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, in Melbourne in 1889, organised by Roberts, Conder and Streeton, and so called because many of the 180 oil sketches exhibited were on cigar box lids of 9 by 5 inches.

A second section National Landscape examines works at a time of growing national identity, including Streeton’s 1891 Fire’s On, which shows the body of a dead worker being carried out of a tunnel being bored through the Blue Mountains.

Roberts depicts two horsemen trying to control sheep in A Break Away! 1891.

Also included, forming a third section, are European landscapes of the expatriate John Russell, “an important, if relatively little known, figure of the French avant garde”.

So it’s not all Australia. We have Antibes, Belle-Ile en Mer, even “Madame Sisley” on the banks of the Loire and views of the Thames and Trafalgar Square.

Indeed each of the four artists spent many years living in Europe, and Conder and Roberts were English-born. Yet the most memorable here are perhaps those they produced as young men in the locations in and around Melbourne and Sydney.

• Australia’s Impressionists, Sunley Room, National Gallery, Trafalgar Square, until March 26, £7.50, concessions available.


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