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Founding fervour: "A Break Away!" by Tom Roberts, 1891 (Art Gallery of South Australia)


For a movement that concerned itself largely with the landscapes of the Seine valley and the environs of Paris, Impressionism’s reach was global. It was a short hop across the Channel to influence the likes of Whistler, Sargent and Sickert but it was a rather longer one to America where a great number of artists quickly adopted its lessons and mannerisms, among them Mary Cassatt and Childe Hassam. The open brushwork, plein air painting and high colours of Monet, Pissarro et al didn’t, however, stop there but kept on going to the furthest side of the world — arriving in Australia within a decade of the first Impressionist exhibition in Paris in 1874.

Impressionism was not the first foreign style to reach the country; a variety of European-trained artists had been working there for decades. The Devonian history painter William Strutt, the Somerset-born view-taker S.T. Gill, the Austrian mountain specialist Eugene von Guerard, and the Russian-born landscapist Nicholas Chevalier all brought different aspects of the old world to the new. Impressionism though, with its freedom, tonal range and its radical modernity, was the style that could be best adapted to the landscape and mindset of the young country.

The National Gallery’s new exhibition, Australia’s Impressionists (from December 7 to March 26), looks at four of the country’s most accomplished home-grown painters who bent the style to Australian ends: Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and John Russell. All these painters worked at some stage in Europe and all lived into the 20th century, Streeton being the longest- lived, dying in 1943. Their work is united too by a growing sense of national pride as the six British self-governing colonies approached federation in 1901.

Of the four it was Russell who was the most European. Born in Sydney, he spent 40 years as an expat, studying at the Slade in London and then moving to Paris, where he worked with both Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. He later moved to Brittany where he got to know Monet and the young Matisse. When he returned to Australia he brought this formidable painterly provenance with him. As this might suggest, the Australian Impressionists didn’t restrict themselves simply to Impressionism but adhered to naturalism and also adopted elements of aestheticism and symbolism.

This mixture of late-19th-century styles  represented a new way for Australians to look at their land. Roberts, Conder and Streeton introduced their countrymen to this hybrid at the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889 which presented 180 oil sketches — “impressions” — painted on cigar-box lids with the dimensions of 9×5 inches. Some showed urban scenes, many were pure landscapes, while others were of subjects that fed on the country’s hard-scrabble foundation narrative.

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