In the 1880s, Impressionism was at the cutting edge of the art world. And in Australia, local Impressionists headed to the beach.
The idea behind Impressionism is simple.
What if, instead of painting a picture featuring clean lines and an objective perspective, you tried to make it more like how things actually looked; sometimes blurry, or shadowy, or opaque, and changing throughout the day, as the light conditions changed.
While the idea seems straightforward, it proved enormously controversial in the 1860s and 70s. The first Impressionists – including Monet, Cezannes and Renoir – were ridiculed when they first exhibited their works in Paris (something I have written about in more detail, here).
But while the public took a little while to warm to these new ideas, they were immediately influential among other artists.
Tom Roberts was a young British artist, who moved to Australia with his family in 1869.
Settling in Collingwood, he worked as a photographer’s assistant during the day, and studied art at the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Design, at night. During his studies he met Frederick McCubbin, a locally born fellow student, and the two became firm friends.
After graduating, Roberts returned to Europe for a period, and undertook further studies at London’s Royal Academy, from 1881 to 1884. During this period, he became exposed to, and entranced by, the Impressionist school.
He was particularly taken with the Impressionists dedication to ‘en plein air’ painting; a method that saw the artist get out of the studio, set up an easel in an outdoor location, and attempt to capture what was in front of them.
Roberts shortly adopted this technique for himself.
In 1885, Roberts returned to Victoria.
Eager to share what he had seen in Europe, he reconnected with McCubbin, and the two artists set out to apply Impressionist techniques to Australian landscape painting.
A friend of McCubbin’s, David Houston, owned a farm at Box Hill, then a rural area on the outskirts of Melbourne. Houston allowed the two painters access to his property, and in the summer of 1885, they journeyed there several times, for a series of weekend ‘camps’.
They painted the gold hued fields during the day, spent the evening drinking and smoking around a campfire, and slept rough:
‘A fire was lighted and we were invited to share lunch. McCubbin busy with billy tea, and Roberts joyously cutting bread and butter.
There was a patch of wild bush, tall young saplings with the sun glistening on their leaves and streamers of bark swaying, groups of tea–tree, dogwood and tall dry grasses.’
- Nancy Elmhurst Goode, who joined a party visiting with the artists.
McCubbin and Roberts enjoyed the camps so much, they determined to continue with them, in different locations.
In 1886, they turned their attention to the coast, south of the city.
The shore front between Sandringham, and Mentone, 10-15 kms from Melbourne, is dramatic. As well as the dark yellow sand of the beaches, and the slate coloured water, there are a series of red cliffs that rise above the bay at several locations.
McCubbin and Roberts rented a simple cottage near Mentone, then sparsely populated, and set to work, painting a series of canvasses on the beach, and the cliff tops.
One day, sometime that summer, they met Arthur Streeton.
A decade younger than McCubbin and Roberts, Streeton hailed from Geelong, but had also attended the National gallery Art School.
There he had heard of ‘en plain air’ painting, and had decided to try it for himself. Roberts and McCubbin ran across him sketching at Rickett’s Point:
‘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.’
- Tom Roberts, recalling the meeting.
Streeton immediately clicked with his older colleagues, and they quickly became close friends.
During the summer, Streeton also began staying at the Mentone cottage.
The three painted during the day, and discussed artistic ideas in the evening. It was a lively, but idyllic existence:
‘We had a great time there. On Sundays we took a billy and chops and tomatoes down to a beautiful little bay, where we camped for the day. We returned home during the evening through groves of exquisite tea-trees; the sea serene, the cliffs flushed with the afterglow.’
- Arthur Streeton
The three artists would return to the Bayside Foreshore several times over the ensuing years.
They were often joined by their colleagues from the wider artistic community, who came to paint and, basically, hang out.
The artistic legacy from this period has been commemorated by the local council, with the excellent ‘Bayside Coastal Trail’, which features representations of a number of works, at the spots where they were painted.
In 1888, Arthur Streeton decided to scope out a new location, north of the city.
He caught the train to Heidelberg, and hiked from there to Templestowe, and then spent the afternoon painting. On his way back to the station, he ran into C.M.Davies, a local landholder, and the two fell into conversation.
Excited by Streeton’s freshly created painting, Davies offered him the use of an old, dilapidated homestead, that stood on a hill on his land.
Streeton eagerly accepted, and spent his first night at the property in December 1888. It was run down, and part of the roof was missing, and it could be drafty and cold, but he fell in love with the place.
He was joined by Roberts, and painter Charles Conder, early the following year:
‘Our beds were made of cornsacks nailed to two saplings. Our seats were old boxes, our dining table was a box with boards placed across it. Our illumination was tallow candles. Surrounded by the loveliness of the new landscape, we worked hard, and were a happy trio.’
- Arthur Streeton
The homestead was dubbed by the trio ‘Eaglemont’, and would soon become a well-known retreat for artists across Victoria.
The work that was produced at Eaglemont was impressionistic, although in a less dramatic way than paintings produced in Europe at the same time.
The colour palette is more muted, and the tones different, reflecting the difference in climate in Australia. Many of the paintings are spectacularly beautiful, and were immediately popular.
Works from this time by Streeton, and McCubbin, and Roberts, and others, are among the most famous ever painted in Australia, and can be found in galleries across the country.
They are collectively grouped together under the banner ‘Australian Impressionism’, and the artists that created them are usually referred to as ‘The Heidelberg School’.