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Heidelberg School


Frederick McCubbin, Lost, 1886, oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: 1077-4.

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.

'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

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.

In a different light - new ways of painting a new country

When European artists first began recording their impressions of the Australian landscape, many of their images were quite similar to scenes common to England.

View upon the South Esk River, Van Diemens Land

Joseph Lycett, View upon the South Esk River, Van Diemens Land, 1825, Hand col. aquatint.
Image courtesy of the National Library of Australia: an7692969.

For many decades, Australia was seen by many in terms of what it wasn't. It wasn't a soft and gentle land; the trees and plants weren't the same; and it wasn't a landscape that had been farmed and tamed for centuries. To the eyes of many new immigrants, Australia was lacking in that it did not have the attributes of the countries they had left. Everything about Australia was different and as artists struggled with these new and often harsh vistas, they painted what they knew, and knew they could paint well. As a result, the Australia of the early nineteenth century is often one of park-like green hills and bubbling streams bathed in a gentle light.

In the 1880s, there was a rising nationalistic sentiment in the lead up to the centenary of white settlement in Australia, with debates about federation. Artists were encouraged to recognise and celebrate the unique qualities of the Australian landscape that made it so different to European landscapes.

'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

'The true rude life', 1885 -

Near Heidelberg

Arthur Streeton, Near Heidelberg, 1890, Oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

The artists who formed the Heidelberg School were actively committed to creating an 'Australian' art where local character, colours, people and landscapes were captured on canvas.

Impressionist and naturalist painting was studied and admired by Tom Roberts during a European tour in the early 1880s. On his return to Australia in 1885, his enthusiasm for these approaches was used to depict realistic Australian scenes and the techniques shared amongst his friends and students. With McCubbin, Roberts was particularly enthusiastic about the need to paint scenes of Australian life.

Rather than the pale light European artists were familiar with, Heidelberg School artists painted landscapes and scenes that glowed with the bright, blinding light of an Australian summer.

'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.

An exhibition of the works of Walter Withers and Arthur Streeton, in 1891 was not only testament to their success in conveying a sense of what Australia was really like, but that it was a place full of beauty, rich in inspiration and not the wilderness it was once considered to be.

American art critic Sidney Dickinson, on seeing their works remarked:

'The golden glory of English Wheat-fields cannot excel the splendour of the wide wastes of grazing land under the dry sky of an Australian summer ... nor can the variegated hues of the American autumn much surpass the tints of the ripened Eucalyptus ... '
Sidney Dickinson in The Australian Critic, 1 July, 1891

A sense of place - Melbourne and surrounds

During the 1880s and 1890s a number of painting sites were used by artists. Artists such as McCubbin and Roberts invited friends to join them painting outdoors at these sites over the years. Many of these sites were in what are now Melbourne suburbs - including Eaglemont, Heidelberg, East Ivanhoe, Mentone, Brighton and Beaumaris.

The Artists, 1886, oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Box Hill Camp paintings 1886 -

Late in 1885, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams camped in a paddock of bushland owned by local farmer David Houston, several miles east of Melbourne in Box Hill.

They set their tents up on the rise of a hill, just near what is now known as Gardiner's Creek. Although the site was only about a mile from Box Hill railway station, their paintings show idyllic natural settings.


Jane Sutherland, Obstruction, 1887, oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the The Art Gallery of Ballarat.

The Artists' Camp was sketched by Roberts 'en plein air' and completed in 1886. It shows his friend McCubbin sitting on the ground as Abrahams shows him the chops that he has just cooked on the fire.

'Happy Box Hill ... the land sylvan as it ever was - tea-tree along the creek - young blue-gum twigs ... as the soft darkness fell ... we forgot everything, but the peace of it ... '
McCubbin in a letter to Roberts, 1914

Other artists joined them there, including Jane Sutherland, an American-born artist who made day trips to the site. Her visits to the area over the years resulted in many paintings including Obstruction (1887) which shows a vulnerable young girl not intimidated by the bush setting, but a menacing cow.

Lost (1886) by Frederick McCubbin shows another young girl alone in the bush - a theme present in his later paintings and that may have picked up on a contemporary news story when a young girl was found safe after three weeks lost in the bush not far from Box Hill.

It was at Box Hill that McCubbin, already well educated and accomplished in art theory and practice, learnt the value of using a limited range of colours in related tones. McCubbin learnt from his friend, Tom Roberts whom he had met at art school in Melbourne and who had recently mastered this 'impressionist' method in London. Painting outdoors and using this technique, his paintings became more united and filled with light.

Later, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder also visited Box Hill, painting An evening with bathers and Orchard at Box Hill respectively, both in 1888.

Slumbering sea, Mentone

Tom Roberts, Slumbering sea, Mentone, 1887, oil on canvas.
Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria: A12-1980.

Mentone holiday scenes 1886 - 87

The following summer of 1886 - 1887 Roberts, McCubbin and Abrahams again decamped to paint outdoors. This time they chose the beachside suburb of Mentone, in Melbourne's south as their temporary home.

It was here that they first met a young Arthur Streeton at Rickett's Point, a nearby rocky headland jutting into Port Phillip Bay. Later, Roberts described their first meeting:

'He was standing out on the wet rocks, painting there, and I saw that his work was full of light and air. We asked him to join us and that was the beginning of a long and delightful association.'

Ricketts Point, Beaumaris

Charles Conder, Ricketts Point, Beaumaris, 1890, oil on wood panel. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 73.827.

This bayside area of Melbourne became a haunt for artists, and many further visits were made by McCubbin and Roberts.

Charles Conder, who first met Roberts in 1888, soon after arriving in Australia, was particularly taken with coastal scenes and produced a number of paintings of the area including A holiday at Mentone (1888).

Conder pursued a coastal theme later in his career, painting numerous scenes of the beaches and coastlines of England and France in the early 1900s.

Heidelberg 1888 - 1890

A quiet day on Darebin Creek

Tom Roberts, A quiet day on Darebin Creek,1885, painting, oil on wood panel. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia: NGA 69.4.

In 1888, Arthur Streeton was given the use of a large but dilapidated farmhouse in Eaglemont, near Heidelberg, a few miles north-east of Melbourne. Artists and friends, Charles Conder and Tom Roberts joined him, and the three painted there for two summers, joined by Frederick McCubbin, Walter Withers, Jane Sutherland and others.

This region is one of the most well known of all the sites the Heidelberg School artists favoured. The vagaries of the surrounding country were captured by them in a vast number of paintings. Some of Australia's most celebrated artworks including Still glides the stream and shall forever glide (1890) and Golden Summer, Eaglemont (1889) were painted here.

'I sit on our hill of gold ... the wind seems sunburnt and fiery ... north-east the very long divide is beautiful, warm blue far far away all dreaming and remote ... Yet as I sit here in the upper circle surrounded by copper and gold and smile joy ... all the light, glory and quivering brightness passes slowly and freely before my eyes ...'
Arthur Streeton on the view from their farmhouse on the hill at Eaglemont

Golden Summer, Eaglemont

Arthur Streeton, Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889, oil on canvas. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Australia.

A number of years later when he was a celebrated artist in Europe and working in Paris, Conder later wrote to Roberts with fond longing of the time he spent near Heidelberg.

'Give me one summer again, with yourself and Streeton, the same long evenings, songs, dirty plates, and last pink skies. But these things don't happen, do they? And what's gone is over.'

Melbourne city

City life was also captured by the artists many of whom had studios in a building called Grosvenor Chambers. Located at Number 9 Collins Street it was Australia's first purpose built complex of artist's studios.

By the Treasury

Tom Roberts, By the Treasury, 1889, Oil on wood panel. Image courtesy of the National Gallery of Victoria.

Streeton, Roberts, Sutherland and Conder all worked there and during that time painted a number of city scenes, many of which were used in the artists' 1889 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, 1889

'9 by 5' refers to the size of the paintings, many of which were painted on cigar box lids provided by Louis Abrahams, whose family owned a cigar importing business.

The paintings evoke contemporary images of European cities with streets slick with rain and people hurrying about their business. They are also an interesting record of a city booming with wealth from the gold rush at the end of the nineteenth century and show an interesting mix of European-inspired architecture in a city which still has elements of the frontier about it. Many of sights in their paintings such as the Treasury Building and the Princess Theatre are still in use in the city today and are well-known landmarks.

One of the 9 by 5 paintings by Conder relates an intimate encounter. On a rainy day on a busy Melbourne street, two dogs sniff one another. Called How we lost poor Flossie (1890), it tells the story of how Frederick McCubbin's dog Flossie (the smaller of the two), set off with the other dog, never to return. Many years later, Frederick McCubbin's son Louis, in his capacity as the director of the Art Gallery of South Australia acquired the painting (and others by Heidelberg School artists) and this is where it remains to this day.

The 9 by 5 Exhibition proved to be popular with members of the general public, but received harsh critical review, particularly from the art critic James Smith, of Melbourne newspaper The Argus . He wrote, in part, that none of the paintings in the exhibition should 'be regarded as a work of art. Neither is a painter's 'impression'. It is simply a record in colour of some fugitive effect which he sees, or professes to see, in nature...'

In response to this review, Streeton, Roberts and Conder jointly wrote to the paper. They defended their work and impressionist approach, stating:

'Any form of nature which moves us strongly by its beauty, whether strong or vague in its drawing, defined or indefinite in its light, rare or ordinary in its colour, is worthy of our best efforts'

How we lost poor Flossie

Charles Conder, How we lost poor Flossie (detail), 1890, oil on panel.
Image courtesy of the Art Gallery of South Australia: 0.1176.

Further afield - New South Wales

Other areas were also favoured by the artists including the Hawkesbury River area near Sydney and some Sydney suburbs such as Coogee and Mosman.

Streeton and Roberts, in particular, also made long trips to more rural areas of Australia and it was these trips that resulted in some of Australia's most iconic and celebrated artworks.

The writings and recollections of the artists about these sites show a romantic nostalgia for the times they shared there, reverence for the beauty of the environment and, for some, a sense of pride and ownership that this land was their home. The sites were places of deep inspiration to the artists who were in awe of what they saw.

Useful links

Listen, look and play

The artists and some of their works

Arthur Streeton

Tom Roberts

Frederick McCubbin

Charles Conder

Jane Sutherland

Walter Withers

Last updated: 30 September 2009
Creators: Big Black Dog Communications Pty Ltd

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