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Aussie paintings not to be missed

The National Gallery, London, has an exhibition dedicated to four Australian 'Impressionist' painters. These exquisite paintings bring a gorgeous summer light to gloomy winter days

Arthur Stratton, Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889. Oil on canvas, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra

Australian Impressionists centres on four Australian artists: Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909) and John Russell (1858–1930) who either studied or worked in Europe at different stages of their careers. Inspired by their counterparts active in Europe, such as Monet, Sisley and Whistler, these painters painted en plain air (in the open air) with their works displaying a preoccupation with the effects of light and colour, using bold and experimental techniques to depict scenes of daily life.

The exhibition is organised in three sections, with the first based on the landmark '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition' held in 1889 in Melbourne. This exhibition was organised by the three major figures of the so-called ‘Heidelberg School’ (later known as the Australian Impressionists) – Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, and Arthur Streeton – and is regarded as one of the most significant art exhibitions ever to have been mounted in Australia. The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition introduced Melbourne society to a distinctly Australian version of Impressionism, and many of the paintings were painted on panels of 9 x 5 inches made out of cigar box lids - hence the name of the exhibition. These smaller paintings are to the right of the entrance and could be missed by turning left towards the main exhibition area. But there are some lovely scenes depicted here so do make sure you don't miss them.

This area also features a number of paintings of the rapidly changing cityscapes of Mebourne and Sydney and it might be a surprise to European eyes to find that late-19th century Australian society was so highly urbanised. Having said that, there is a painting of a station in Sydney that is still very recognisable to travellers who use it today.

Charles Conder, Coogee Bay, 1888. Oil on cardboard. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Turning left of the main entrance you enter the second section of the exhibition and this room has some of the loveliest paintings of the exhibition. The artists featured liked to paint from real life (a technique known as 'en plain air' rather than painting from memory or sketches in a studio) - in the outdoors to better capture the landscape and above all, the light. Apparently Roberts had embraced this technique while travelling in Europe in the early 1880s, and it provided the basis for this new school of painting. Scenes of daily life around Sydney Harbour are captured with their vibrant beauty (above), while scenes of the bush are elevated to a mode of heroic myth. An important painting in this section is Streeton’s Fire’s On (right, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney © AGNSW) from 1891, which shows the construction of the Lapstone Tunnel through the Blue Mountains near Sydney, and vividly depicts the moment when a young navvy was killed by a blast just a few yards away from Streeton. Resilience in the face of the sometimes harsh and unforgiving Australian environment became a recurrent theme.

The third section highlights the work of John Russell. Russell is slightly different to the other three painters who are featured, as although he was born and died in Sydney, he spent 40 years as an expatriate in Europe, and was closely connected to the avant-garde. He first enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1881 under French artist and professor Alphonse Legros before continuing his studies in Paris alongside Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. He travelled to Spain with Roberts in 1883, painting en plein air, but unlike Roberts, Russell settled in Europe on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the coast of Brittany, where he observed Monet painting and where he also met and mentored the young Matisse. It is clear to see how his work was influenced by these French artists, particularly Monet, for example, in Aiguille de Coton, Belle-Ile c.1900. (Left, oil on canvas, Kerry Stokes Collection, Perth © Acorn Photo, Perth).

Russell returned to the Antipodes in the early 1920s, eventually settling in Sydney in 1924. This section explores the work of a painter who, despite his connections to some of the most important artists of his time, rarely exhibited and was only rediscovered as ‘Australia’s lost Impressionist’ in the second half of the 20th century.

The inspiration for Australia’s Impressionists came as the result of the National Gallery receiving the long-term loan of Blue Pacific (1890, Private collection) by Arthur Streeton in 2015 (right) and this was the first painting by an Australian artist to be displayed at the National Gallery.

I am delighted that this beautiful painting has inspired this exhibition. Not only does it bring these very talented artists to a new audience, but it brings a ray of sunshine to a gloomy winter's day.

There is one warning however: if you are an Australian visitor who haven't been home for a while, the scenes of the Hawkesbury River, Coogee beach, Circular Quay and Sydney Harbour will make you homesick and want to jump on a plane as soon as possible! A wonderful exhibition - not to be missed.

Australian Impressionists

Sunley Room, National Gallery, London

Showing until: 26th March 2017

CLICK HERE for more information


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