When the first artists arrived in colonial Australia from Europe in the late 18th century, they were confronted by images and scenery the likes of which they had never seen:
...the whole appearance of nature must be striking in the extreme to the adventurer, and at first this will seem to him to be a country of enchantments.
Thomas Watling, Letters From An Exile in Botany Bay, To His Aunt in Dumfries, 1794
The traditions of European art and painting did not fit comfortably with this strange and bewildering new landscape. Early artists tended to paint what they saw and the better the representation; the better the work was regarded.
The new landscape
John Glover (1767-1849), Australian landscape with cattle: the artist's property Patterdale, c. 1835, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an2253188.
Artists like the convict John Eyre, who produced paintings and engravings in the first decade of the nineteenth century, and the landscape painter Conrad Martens—a close friend of Charles Darwin—produced important works during these early years of settlement.
Glover was one of the precursors of an Australian style of painting. He arrived in Tasmania from England in 1831. A talented landscape painter with a strong reputation in England (and France), Glover was never seen as an artist who 'pushed the boundaries'.
While he was initially criticised for not paying close enough attention to the 'local characteristics', he did find an individuality in his work through the new landscapes and atmosphere of Tasmania. His depiction of the Tasmanian light as bright and clear, was a departure from his European paintings and gave his paintings a true Australian quality.
His body of work made him a pioneer of landscape painting in Australia.
The Heidelberg School
The Heidelberg School was the first significant art movement in Australia. An evolving nationalism had led painters like Tom Roberts, Fredrick McCubbin and Arthur Streeton to unashamedly paint the Australian landscape in an effort to capture something of the essence of their land:
...the Australian Artist can best fulfil his highest destiny by remaining in his own country and studying that which lies about him...
Frederick McCubbin, c1915
Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), The pioneer, 1904, oil on canvas (3 panels). Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: Accession no. 253-2, Felton Bequest, 1906.
Roberts was the first major painter to be selected to study at London's Royal Academy of Arts in 1881. He studied impressionism in Europe and returned to Australia in 1885 and, together with McCubbin, Streeton and Condor (the Heidelberg School), dedicated himself to painting the bush.
The outback was the stuff of his paintings – Shearing the Rams and A Break Away being amongst his most famous.
McCubbin became the first Australian-born white artist of significance and was probably the most impressionistic of the nationalistic group of painters. His long association with Roberts had a significant impact on his painting and he was one of the Heidelberg School's leading lights.
McCubbin's most famous work, Lost, was inspired by twelve year old Clara Crosbie who was found alive after three weeks lost in the bush near Lilydale.
The beginnings of Modernism
While the Heidelberg School and its nationalistic painters were principally Melbourne-based, it was Sydney where the early modernist movement began.
Nora Simpson is widely seen as giving impetus to modernism in Australia when she returned to Sydney from Europe in 1913 with reproductions of the work of French painters. Modernism was all about innovation and experimentation with techniques such as cubism and expressionism.
Grace Cossington Smith
Cossington Smith stands at the vanguard of modernism in Australia and her painting The Sock Knitter (1915) is recognised as a key modernist work.
The real character of her contribution to modern painting took shape with the formation of the 'Contemporary Group' in 1926 (with Roland Wakelin and Roy de Maistre). It was many more years before appropriate recognition was given to her impressive body of work.
Margaret Preston has endured as one of the nation's most popular painters. She is most well known for her oils and prints of Australian flora and fauna.
She was heavily influenced by modernism and was one of the first artists to understand the importance of, and to be influenced by, Aboriginal art.
Preston also took a liking to print-making and producing hand decorated ceramics.
The symbolic surrealists
Barbara Tucker, Albert Tucker, Arthur Boyd and Sidney Nolan, Hurstbridge, c.1968, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of Barbara Tucker and the National Library of Australia: an23609771.
The symbolic surrealism of Sidney Nolan, Arthur Boyd and Albert Tucker saw a more spontaneous and visionary approach to the creative process. Their work added a new and exciting dimension to a somewhat stagnant Australian art scene.
Nolan was fixated with Australia's icons, especially the legendary bushranger, Ned Kelly. Nolan painted his first Ned Kelly series in 1947 and brought together the land, its people, history and most importantly, its mythology.
Nolan described his work as 'a confused mix of landscape, animals, and Aboriginal culture, with a kind of Bible overtone'.
Influenced by the French post-impressionists, Boyd absorbed a range of artistic influences, including Sidney Nolan, Albert Tucker and the Russian emigre, Danila Vassilieff.
Boyd's celebrated Half-caste Bride pictures were inspired by time spent in Central Australia, as well as the early surrealist paintings of Chagall.
Russell Drysdale – a brooding nationalism
Drysdale's paintings depict Australia's changing vision of the bush. It is no longer a place of freedom and opportunity, but reflected lost hopes and decay. His is a new vision of the bush and its identity.
Sofala is one of Drysdale's most famous works and typifies emptiness of the bush. Unlike the painters of the Heidelberg School, little positive meaning can now be found in our landscape.
Greg Weight, John Olsen with painting 'The bath', 1997, photograph: gelatin silver. Photograph courtesy of Greg Weight and the National Library of Australia: an23609771.
The 1950s and 1960s saw the battle between conservative and modern forces in Australian art – a battle between the figurists and the abstractionists, or the 'figs' and 'abs' as they were referred to.
Olsen's chief subject is the Australian landscape. His observations of the land's wildlife and the 'Aussie larrikin' taps into a tradition and a sense of national identity that harks back to the Heidelberg School.
Some of his greatest works include his Lake Eyre paintings and more recent works such as Golden Summer and Clarendon. His mural Salute to Five Bells is exhibited at the Sydney Opera House.
Whiteley, Pop Art and recent work
Australian art in the 1960s was influenced by 'colour-field' abstract painting, American and European art trends, and by a growing interest in the Asian art scene.
The best example of this eclecticism can be seen in the work of Brett Whiteley who drew on a wide range of cultures and influences.
He was seen as one of the leading lights of the avant-garde art movement. His brilliant Alchemy depicted life's journey, from birth to death, and the ultimate transmutation. In 1977 he became the only Australian artist ever to claim the Archibald, Sulman and Wynne art prizes—a unique treble.
Widely regarded as the 'grandfather' of Pop art in Australia, Larter has used different mediums throughout his career to portray his work.
Larter's main theme in his work was the sexuality of the human figure, particularly women. His adaptation of the hypodermic syringe was his 'painter's pen'. By varying the finger pressure on the plunger, Larter believed he had more control over his works 'than Jackson Pollock pouring paint from holes in cans and flipping drip sticks'.
One of a new generation of abstractionists, Johnson uses shaped canvasses and broad masses of flat, uninterrupted colour. Rectangular forms provide the structural component of his work and there is a three-dimensional element to many of his works.
Lindy Lee is one of Australia's foremost contemporary artists. She became known in the 1980s with paintings based on images from the past (e.g. El Grecho, Rembrandt, Delacroix).
Her technique of scraping back the black oil and wax she applied to the surface of her paintings to reveal an underlying image, gave her works an almost ghostly 'foggy' feel. (The Encyclopaedia of Australian Art 1994).
- National Gallery of Australia
- Australian painters of the twentieth century – Art Gallery NSW
- Country and Landscape – exhibition, National Library of Australia (archived site)
- Ocean to outback: Australian landscape painting 1850-1950
- Wikipedia, Heidelberg School
- The Ned Kelly Series (1946-47) by Sidney Nolan
- Australian Art Series: Exhibitions Featuring Sir Sidney Nolan, Tracey Moffatt and Mikala Dwyer
- Grace Cossington-Smith
- Margaret Rose Preston
- Russell Drysdale: Sofala
- John Olsen
- Brett Whiteley Studio
- Michael Johnson
Last updated: 23rd November 2007
Creators: ACME, et al.