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Heidelberg School

A look at the 19th C Australian Art Movement also known as Australian Impressionism

George Comninos

on 24 July 2013

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Transcript of Heidelberg School

The first important art movement in Australia was the 'Heidelberg School'. Today, the term refers to a number of artists, including Frederick McCubbin, Arthur Streeton and Tom Roberts, who painted scenes 'en plein air' (in the open air) of Australia, particularly in Melbourne and its surrounds. Over the years they were joined by other artists such as Charles Conder, Walter Withers, Louis Abrahams and Jane Sutherland.

The 'Heidelberg School' refers to this fluid group of painters and the body of work they produced.

The term Heidelberg School originated in July 1891 when visiting American art critic Sidney Dickinson, wrote a review of an exhibition of paintings by Walter Withers and Arthur Streeton.
Australia 1867-1943

FIRE'S ON, 1891
oil on canvas 183.8 x 122.5cm
Purchased, 1893
Collection: The Art Gallery of New South Wales
An image of The storm
Walter Withers (Australia 1854–1914)
Title : The storm
Year : 1896
Media: Painting
Medium: oil on canvas on hardboard
Dimensions: 76.3 x 137.6cm board; 118.8 x 179.5 x 7.0cm frame
Signature & date
Signed and dated l.r. corner, brown oil "Walter Withers/ 1896".
Purchased 1897
The "main" players
Both these artists are of that practice which may be called, for purposes of distinction, the "Heidelberg School" for their work has been done chiefly in this attractive suburb, where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting.'
Sidney Dickinson in The Australian Critic, 1 July 1891
Frederick McCubbin
Arthur Streeton
Tom Roberts
Later joined by:
Charles Conder
Walter Withers
Louis Abrahams
Jane Sutherland
Their works are celebrated today because they were among the first artists, and some of the most effective, to realistically depict the harsh beauty of the Australian landscape.

The country was an inspiration to them and together they produced a large volume of work showing people, places and landscapes using 'impressionist' techniques that used quick, broad strokes to capture the light and colour they saw as they painted.
Australia, despite the rich artistic traditions of its Indigenous peoples, was dominated by British art and cultural perceptions for most of the first century after colonisation in the late 1700s. Its artists, trained in Europe, were preoccupied with depicting the unfamiliar land, and landscape emerged as the chief subject of colonial Australian art.

The first distinctively Australian school of painting flowered in the decades immediately before Federation in 1901. It was based on naturalism, painting in the open air and representing themes from the national life. Australian sunlight became the emblem of a burgeoning nationalism and the new art of the Heidelberg School. In 1889, the first self-consciously avant-garde event in the colonies took place. It was The 9 × 5 impression exhibition held in Buxton’s Rooms, Melbourne. It featured impressions of bush and city life rapidly painted on cigar box lids by the heroes of the new movement, Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909) and Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917).
Subject Matter
At the end of the 19th Century Australia was on the verge of becoming a nation and Australians were developing a national identity. Heidelberg artists favoured subject matter that depicted the harsh realities of living in the Australian bush. Pioneers, workers, swagmen and bushrangers were favourite themes. It should be noted that this content had a mythic and romantic element to it as much of this "taming" of the bush had already well and truly happened.
'We cannot ... urge too strongly ... how requisite it is that we should as soon as possible fill our National Gallery with representative works of our artists and our nation, its early historical scenes, and pictures of the true rude life that must have and did exist in the early days of the colony.'
'Tusque', 'The National Gallery: "On the Line"' Australian Magazine, July 1886, p. 138
'I fancy large canvases all glowing and moving in the happy light, and others bright, decorative and chalky and expressive of the hot, trying winds and the slow, immense summer.'
Frederick McCubbin in a letter to Tom Roberts.
Artist Tom Roberts
Year 1890
Type oil on canvas on composition board
Dimensions 122.4 cm × 183.3 cm (48.2 in × 72.2 in)
Location National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Roberts modelled his painting on a shearing shed at what is now called "Killeneen", an outstation of the 24,000-hectare (59,000-acre) "Brocklesby" sheep station, near Corowa in the Riverina region of New South Wales.[3] The property was owned by the Anderson family, distant relations to Roberts, who first visited the station in 1886 to attend a family wedding.[4] Having decided on shearing as the subject for a painting, Roberts arrived at Brocklesby in the spring of 1888, making around 70 preliminary sketches. The following shearing season, he returned to the station with his canvas. Roberts' work was noted by the local press with reports of him "dressed in blue shirt and moleskins ... giving the last finishing touches to a picture in oils about 5ft by 4ft."[4]

Art historians had previously thought Roberts completed most of the painting in his studio, using the sketches drawn in his time at Brocklesby.[4] In 2003 however, art critic and historian Paul Johnson wrote: "Tom Roberts spent two years, on the spot, painting Shearing the Rams".[5] New evidence was brought to light in 2006 that suggested that Roberts painted much of the work en plein air at the shearing shed itself.[4] In 2006, The National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) conducted a scientific examination of paint left on a piece of timber salvaged from the now-destroyed shed, where it was thought that Roberts cleaned his brushes. The study confirmed that the paint, in a number of different shades, precisely matched the paint used in the painting. The senior curator of art at the NGV, Terence Lane, believes this is strong evidence that much of the work was done on location, "For me, that's evidence of a lot of time spent in that woolshed ... all those paint marks and the selection of colours indicates he spent so much time en plein air".[4]

In a seeming anachronism, the painting shows sheep being shorn with blade shears rather than the machine shears which started to enter Australian shearing sheds in the late 1880s.[6] The young man carrying the fleece on the left of the painting alludes to the figure of Esau in Ghiberti's Gates of Paradise at the Florence Baptistry.[4] The model for the tar-boy, a smiling figure in the centre of the picture was actually a girl, Susan Davis, who lived until 1979. She also assisted Roberts by kicking up dust in the shed to allow him to capture some of the atmosphere.[4]

An x-ray study of the painting in 2007, taken while the painting was being cleaned, unveiled Roberts' original sketch of the central shearer. In that original sketch, the shearer was lacking a beard and was more upright; the change to a stooping figure makes the shearer appear more in control of the sheep, improving his role as the painting's focus.[4]
Shearing the Rams is an 1890 painting by the Australian artist Tom Roberts. The painting depicts sheep shearers plying their trade in a timber shearing shed. Distinctly Australian in character, the painting is a celebration of pastoral life and work, especially "strong, masculine labour" and recognises the role that wool-growing played in the development of the country.

One of the most well known and loved paintings in Australia, Shearing the Rams has been described as a "masterpiece of Australian impressionism" and "the great icon of Australian popular art history".[1][2] The painting is part of the National Gallery of Victoria Australian art collection.
9x5 exhibition
The Response

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