Arthur Streeton: The Master of Light

The Art Gallery of New South Wales’ latest blockbuster exhibition, Streeton, very correctly describes him as “The impressionist who captured Australia’s light, land and sea.” The rubric is most apposite, for the core of his work is indeed to capture the essence of our landscape saturated with bright light. However, the purpose of these great retrospective exhibitions is to allow people to ‘see an artist’s work whole’: the art gallery becomes a three dimensional art book, allowing one to stroll from painting to painting instead of merely turning the pages of a monograph. This panoptical approach will afford us some surprising and fresh insights. First, in terms of the ‘classic’ Streeton landscapes, the main Australian landscapes are brought together, enriched by a number of paintings from private collections, rarely seen by the public. For the purposes of this article, we shall call this famous and much-loved corpus of works ‘the Known Streeton’.

Second, and perhaps more enticing, is what we might loosely call ‘the Unknown Streeton’. In this review, I will certainly acknowledge the classic Australian landscapes, but will also draw attention to four of the painter’s less well-known achievements. The second part of this review will be devoted to groups of works that might be less familiar to gallery visitors. For Streeton did not only paint Australia’s light. In four different episodes, he painted the stark light of Cairo, the liquid light of the Venetian landscape (1908-1909), the fine light of the French landscape in his World War I paintings (1914-1918), and the mellow light of the English landscape. This exhibition will, in a word, allow us to perceive the magisterial unfolding of a painterly career, a strategic self re-invention, some of which occurred outside the borders of Australia.

A national icon?

Where exactly does Streeton stand in Australia’s national consciousness? The answer is somewhat nuanced. It is clear that Streeton’s name and career do have a broad resonance in the Australian mind.

Some years ago, as I was preparing a university lecture on the Australian landscape, I was intrigued to discover that a new residential development on the outskirts of Melbourne was being heavily advertised under the poetic name of ‘The Streeton Views Estate’. The glossy real estate brochure showed colour photographs of ‘the Arthur Streeton Creek’ and the ‘Arthur Streeton hillside’. Since there are millions of dollars tied up in such property developments, it struck me as extraordinary that the entrepreneurs should have predicated their sales pitch upon the idea of buying a piece of Australia similar to those painted by Streeton. Their gambit presupposes that most people would know Streeton’s name, and moreover could relate to his vision of the Australian landscape.

Streeton is indeed well known … and yet to this day there is not a single recent biography of the man, the last being a fine monograph by Ann Galbally published in 1969, and another study by Christopher Wray published in 1993. The last major retrospective was at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1995, and there were specific sectional exhibitions in 2017 and 2016. This is, in sum, not a great deal of curatorial attention to such an important artist.

It is to be hoped that the present exhibition might stimulate scholarly activity to rectify this neglect. It must be said, however, that the exhibition itself has already generated one major effort of scholarship: the magisterial exhibition catalogue itself. The editor, Wayne Tunnicliffe, has brought together some of Australia’s most eminent art historians to write Streeton (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2020). It has by far exceeded the traditional scope of the exhibition catalogue in Australia and is, in effect, a superlative monograph in its own right, a great ‘brick’ of a book.

The Box Hill Camp

Streeton was the youngest member of an informal group of painters who, from 1885 onwards, espoused the practice of plein-air painting. The term ‘Heidelberg School’ was only coined in 1891 by an art critic who arguably “perpetuated the greatest misnomer in Australian art history”.[1] The young Streeton in fact first met Tom Roberts, Fred McCubbin and Louis Abrahams in December 1886 at a camp at Beaumaris on Port Phillip Bay, their first site of shared activity; they also painted at Box Hill, Blackburn, Gembrook and finally at Eaglemont, near Heidelberg. Heidelberg was in fact the last hurrah for the original group. The original confraternity, with their chummy nicknames – McCubbin was the Prof, Abrahams was the Don, Roberts was Bulldog and the younger, self-effacing Streeton was Smike – would carry fond memories of these ‘golden summers’ for the rest of their lives.

Arthur Streeton in Melbourne in 1887 (unknown photographer) and Tom Roberts’ portrait of Arthur Streeton aged 24 (1891)

The Box Hill camp was a thrill for these city boys. Paradoxically, it was only just ‘bush’: Box Hill actually had an established township with a main street and spreading residential areas, and the rest of the land was ‘tamed’ into orchards and market gardens. It just so happened that farmer David Houston’s property, near Gardiner’s Creek, still had an area of remnant eucalypt forest – mainly box gum, with their distinctive bluish leaves – and it was here that the lads camped out and revelled in cooking chops over a campfire. They never mentioned that they were just one kilometre’s hike from the suburban railway station of Box Hill, and just fifteen kilometres from the city. They were, in effect, camping in an outer suburb of Melbourne, not in the Mighty Bush.

And yet this modest escapade to a local farm created a sense of liberation and camaraderie. Years later, an aging Streeton, now living in the ante-diluvian gloom of a wintery London, recalled lyrically:

“… the wattles and the ti-tree down by the creek – The Houston’s cabin – the messmate tree and its mistletoe and horehound patch beneath – Prof far up ahead mopin [sic: ‘mopping’] his brow near Jack Gouge’s – the flush over the Dandenongs and the quiet grey valley beyond Whitehorse Road towards Macedon.”[2]

Streeton’s Settler’s Camp, 1888

It was here that Streeton painted the studies and sketches for an unusually large work – 86.5 x 112.5 cm – Settler’s Camp, which was later painted in his studio in Melbourne. In contrast to his fellow Louis Abrahams, who simply painted a literal scene of their humble campsite, Streeton here translates the place into the historical dimension, imagining it to be a moment in the area’s early history, when the first settlers arrived. He might have been influenced by current debates amongst artists and in the press as to what an Australian school of painters should depict. Some called for great moments in history, others called for pure landscapes, or images of humble working people. He must also have been influenced by Roberts and McCubbin – he was in awe of the two older painters – and by their skill in painting large-scale bush landscapes with sturdy laboring figures in them. While his two mentors pursued this theme throughout their careers, it was a path that Streeton eventually did not follow; typically, Streeton would tend to paint pure landscapes, or at most landscapes with small figures. Examination of the paint surface by X-ray has revealed that Streeton initially began a second figure, then painted it out. And the ‘Box Hill illusion’ certainly worked its charm: one reviewer gullibly praised Streeton for this scene “set on the edge of a forest perhaps in Gippsland.”[3]

The famous 9 x 5 Exhibition

The famous 9 x 5 Exhibition of 1889 has now become a legend in the narrative of the development of Australian art. The small paintings, painted very freely in oil on wood panels, are a pure visual delight. And yet our familiarity with, and fondness for, these iconic works should not obscure the true nature of the challenge – even the shock -they administered to the art world of the time.

View of 9 x 5s in Sydney exhibition and the catalogue of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, 1889

The contested role of the oil sketch

It was not that oil sketches themselves were either new or shocking. A master of the National Gallery of Victoria Art School, such as George Folingsby, with his academic training, would teach students that they could certainly use a quick oil sketch to capture a first impression in the field, and then take it back to the studio to work it up into a fully finished painting. It would, however, be outrageous to exhibit the original working sketch as a work of art in its own right.

This is where Roberts and his band challenged academic orthodoxy, insisting that a rapidly painted sketch could in fact capture a fresh, spontaneous visual impression and stand as a valid work of art in its own right. In their exhibition catalogue, they wrote:

An effect is only momentary; so an impressionist tries to find his place. Two half hours are never alike, and he who tries to paint the sunset on two successive evenings, must be more or less working from memory. So in these works, it has been the object of the artist to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects that widely differing, and often of very fleeting character.

The great reconvening of the surviving 9 x 5s on the walls of the Art Gallery of New South Wales will be a momentous and exhilarating visual experience. If we can take ourselves back to the world of 1889, we might be able to conjure up the experience of ‘the shock of the new’. For there were two different – but linked – contestations at work here.

Tom Roberts’ Thames Scene, 1884

First, Roberts had led a technical contestation, by which he asserted that an oil sketch could indeed be a stand-alone and valid work of art. He and his fellows were already being dubbed ‘the Impressionists’, but art historians assert that there is no evidence that Roberts studied the French Impressionists whilst in Paris. His biographers point to a quite different inspiration. Roberts was in London in May 1884, when James McNeill Whistler staged an exhibition of filmy landscapes in small panels that he variously called symphonies, harmonies or just notes. Roberts would almost certainly have visited this exhibition. Indeed, whilst still in London, Roberts painted a number of small works in emulation of Whistler – such as Thames Scene – and returned to Australia much taken by Whistler’s technique.

Second, this provocative exhibition was not merely a contestation of art practice: this existed within a broader, very vigorous debate about the Australian national identity, and included discussions as to how the Australian landscape should be represented. In this sense, the Australian art movement was imbued with a spirit of nascent nationalism that I suspect was probably not present in, say, French Impressionism.

Both of these strands – the artistic and the nationalistic – became a battleground for conflicting forces in the Australian art world. The conservative art critic of The Argus, James Smith, attended the exhibition and snorted to Roberts “More eccentricities?” A conservative imbued with the aesthetic beliefs of John Ruskin, Smith was inevitably hostile to the work of Whistler and his followers in England. Just as Ruskin had famously accused Whistler of spilling paint over a canvas, Smith accused Roberts and company of a facile deception: “The modern impressionist asks you to see pictures in splashes of colour, in slap dash brush work, and in sleight of hand methods of execution leading to the proposition of pictorial conundrums, which would baffle solution if there were no label or catalogue.”[4] Impressionism, he spat, “is a craze of such ephemeral character as to be unworthy of serious attention.” Famous last words …

This attack unleashed a battle royale. Roberts, Conder and Streeton published a response in The Argus, affirming: “Let us then try to state our case of the principles upon which we have worked… They are these: – That we will not be led by any forms of composition or light and shade: that any effect of nature that moves us strongly by its beauty, whether strong or vague in its drawing, declined or indefinite in its light, rare ordinary in colour, is worthy of our best efforts and of the love of those who love our art.” They concluded with the nationalist sentiment that their efforts would contribute to “the development of what we believe will be a great school of painting in Australia.”[5] It is quite possible that Streeton merely signed to this manifesto, given that he was quite impatient of art theory, preferring simply to paint instinctively, without any intellectual baggage.

The exhibition was generally well supported by the Melbourne public. It is true that one lady commented, hilariously, that “some of the paintings might be nice if they were finished” [6] (!); the said lady did, however, come back and buy two works. Indeed, 73 of the 183 paintings were sold individually, and the remainder were all auctioned off successfully at the close of the exhibition. Art historian Christopher Wray notes that the clientele for the new painting tended to be middle-class professionals, academics and merchants of the city; the great pastoralists tended to prefer to buy paintings from England or Europe. One such patron was Professor Marshall-Hall, whom Streeton portrays in a respectful portrait in the exhibition.

Framed with slabs of native timber

There is one final nationalistic act of rebellion encoded in these little bombshell paintings: their frames. Roberts and his associates rejected the long tradition – inherited from aristocratic Europe – of placing paintings in ornately carved, gilded frames. Sometimes they violated the tradition by simply using raw wooden frames; in some cases, they set the paintings in great slabs of timber – sadly, it was Canadian redwood, cheaply obtained from local dealers – suggesting that they were physically set in the context of the bushland they were depicting. In The Lover’s Walk the piece of wood is also then painted with a sinuous gum tree – probably done by an amateur artist – further asserting the environment of the eucalypt forest.

Streeton’s The Lover’s walk

‘Urban Impressionism’

Given the popularity of Streeton’s ‘bush’ scenes, it is easy to forget that he was also quite the master of the cityscape. Those who love Melbourne will be impressed by gems such as Princess Theatre and Burke and Wills (1889), Hoddle Street, 10 p.m. (1889) and Albert Street, East Melbourne (1889). Commonly, Streeton chose to represent a crepuscular Melbourne, and did so with caressing finesse.

Streeton’s Hoddle Street, 10 p.m., 1889

Amazing but true: The burning of the 9 x 5s

Some visitors who admire the 9 x 5s in the exhibition might be unaware of one of the greatest mishaps in Australian art history. One of the group’s members was Louis Abrahams, whose father was a successful businessman who imported boxes of cigars. He it was who could keep the group of young painters supplied with cedar cigar box lids upon which to paint. The Abrahams parents also showered typical Jewish hospitality upon the young men by inviting them for a slap-up feast in their mansion once a week. On each occasion, one of the group was designated to paint a little 9 x 5 oil painting to thank the hosts. The Abrahams soon had a box full of such works in their living room, possibly the richest single collection of Heidelberg works at that time. Then, disaster struck. The Abrahams had hired a new maid and had instructed her to set a fire in the living room. She had asked how she would start it. Madame Abrahams told her to find some little pieces of wood, break them up for kindling and start the blaze. The result was a roaring fire … and a box hauntingly empty of 9 x 5s… Art historians have been known to weep tears of blood when they hear this story!

Charles Conder and the magic of light

While Streeton was in awe of the older painters in the group, possibly his greatest influence was in fact the English-born Charles Conder. He had come to Australia with a knowledge of Whistler and the Aesthetic Movement, and here fell under the liberating influence of the plein-air (open air) landscapist Julian Rossi Ashton. By April 1888, Conder had met Tom Roberts, and was doing plein-air painting with him at Coogee. He moved into the Grosvenor Chambers with Roberts, who gave him the matey nickname of K. In a painting such as Bronte Beach, Conder’s study of light is so intense that the materiality of the beach is almost dissolved in the luminous atmosphere.

Conder’s Bronte Beach, 1888

Roberts brought Conder to the Box Hill camp in October 1888. Conder was almost the same age as Streeton, and they immediately formed a bond – tinged with rivalry – predicated upon an intense study of atmosphere and light. They only worked together for just under two years, but Conder’s influence deflected Streeton away from the Roberts/McCubbin paradigm of ‘bush’ painting, and into his own true pathway. His greater attention to light can be seen in the exhibition in works such as Early Summer – Gorse in Bloom. Later in his life, an ageing Streeton was somewhat tetchy on the question of Conder’s influence, and tried to affirm his own independent progress. His biographers, however, attest to a strong reciprocal influence, one that was seminal to the direction taken by both artists.

Streeton’s Early Summer – Gorse in Bloom, 1888

An artistic colony: Mount Eagle (now Eaglemont)

One important work in the exhibition captures the next major development in Streeton’s career: the carefree joie de vivre of the young artists in their next colony, a deserted house in Eaglemont.

The French Impressionists had recently pioneered what we might call the informal portrait of confraternal artists, and Charles Conder followed suite and captured one of many treasured moments of collegial discussion and sociability. Charles Conder’s The Impressionists’ Camp (1889, National Gallery of Australia) was an absolute must for this exhibition, because it captures far, far more than an idle moment or a passing conversation.

Conder’s The Impressionists’ Camp, 1889

It gives a very accurate idea of how very bare the derelict wooden farmhouse was and, by extension, gives us the key to Streeton’s utter contentment here. Tom Roberts is seated, possibly reading a newspaper article or a review, while Streeton stands and bends forward as if addressing him. But art historian Mary Eagle sees something rather deeper here than a comfortable pseudo-bohemianism. These men were asserting their complete devotion to art at the cost of having relinquished paid employment. Roberts, Streeton and Conder had all recently left various remunerative employments. Mary Eagle writes: “The camp at Heidelberg is notable for more than the art produced there. The bare and shadowy interior depicted in Conder’s ‘Impressionists Camp’ was the proud sign of a pioneering outlook, dedicated to art, and involving a voluntary state of poverty.”[7]

A chance encounter between Streeton and property-owner Charles Davies had resulted in the offer to use the derelict homestead – for two years – on the Mount Eagle estate for an artistic colony. The building was dilapidated and bereft of furniture: the men improvised beds with sacks nailed to sapling trunks. It was in effect like camping, but inside four walls, and Streeton found it glorious. What the more fastidious Conder thought has not been recorded, but he tended only to visit, whereas Streeton lived here happily for two years. Having the use of the building did also mean that the artists could give lessons in painting to female art students.

It was perhaps at Mount Eagle (now the Melbourne suburb of Eaglemont) that Streeton attained to the apogee of his visual lyricism. His biographers note that Streeton was not attached to traditional religion, but felt an almost religious joy in the presence of a beautiful landscape. We are fortunate that he also translated some of his visual impressions into prose. When we view his Golden Summer – Eaglemont in the exhibition, we might calibrate what we see with the following description:

“I sit on our hill of gold, on the north side: the wind seems sunburnt and fiery as it runs through my beard. Yes, rather, see, look here: north east the very long divide is beautiful, warm blue, far, far away, all dreaming and remote. Now to the east a little . A great round cloud of smoke rises slowly up over the dreamy horizon into the soft, sweet eastern sky, then reaching the wind, floats gently south like a stream … of spiders’ webs, making dim and large the long, majestic Dandenong Ranges.”[8]

Streeton’s Golden Summer, Eaglemont, 1889

City and Surf: Sydney Harbour

It was economic rather than artistic considerations that now led Streeton to the next important stage of his career, when he would produce his most glorious views of the city, harbor and beaches of Sydney. The 1880s had been economically vibrant, with a land boom enriching many of the types of professional people who supported the Heidelberg School. By 1890, the boom was faltering, and by 1893 the economic downturn was in full swing. Streeton now struggled to make any sales at all in Melbourne. He was, however, elated when representatives of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, led by the Sydney artist Julian Ashton purchased his monumental canvas, Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide.

Arthur Streeton’s Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide, 1890

The sale of a work to a state gallery was a major milestone of professional success. This hopeful development might have led to his decision in May 1890 to try his luck in the Sydney art world. He had, in any case, to travel to Sydney to finalise the sale … and to obligingly paint out two details in the landscape that a finickity board member had objected to as ‘wrong’. (!)

Having seen the luminous paintings previously done by Conder and Roberts at Coogee, Streeton made his way to the famous spot. Conder had by this point returned to England, but Streeton remained strongly under the influence of Conder’s almost incandescent beach scenes.

The exhibition will allow us to see a number of key works from private collections, such as the sweeping panorama of Sunny South (1890) and the great rocky headland of The Blue Pacific (1890).

One notable development in terms of format is that the vast panoramas of harbor and beach forced Streeton to move beyond the classic 9 x 5 format, and to use much narrower – but much longer – formats, as seen in At Coogee (1895) and the breathtaking Circular Quay (1893) (both National Gallery of Victoria). Once again, these formats were the result of improvisation rather than planning: Streeton had discovered that drapers use long, narrow boards around which to wind bolts of cloth, and adapted these to his painterly use. Unlike the 9 x 5 cedar panels, these still had to be paid for, but they were still much cheaper than mounted canvases from art suppliers.

Streeton’s At Coogee, 1895
Streeton’s Circular Quay, 1893

Perhaps even more compelling are these same long, narrow formats but in vertical format, such as the two thinly-sliced views of Sirius Cove – pictured below (one from a private collection, another from the National Gallery of Australia).

The artists’ colony at Mosman

In addition, the exhibition will bring together three luminous and majestic views of the harbor from his camp at Sirius Cove: The Point Wharf, Mosman’s Bay (1893), From My Camp, Sirius Cover (1896) and Near Streeton’s Camp at Sirius Cove (1892) – pictured below.

A photograph taken by R. Cherry at the Curlew camp sums up the moment: as at Mount Eagle in Victoria, Streeton was gloriously happy at the Curlew Camp and the Mosman area. We see him on a beach, crouching before a panel propped up on a rock, completely immersed in recording the visual impressions of the place. The life of this artistic colony at Sirius Cove has been studied by Albie Thoms in his Bohemians in the Bush. The Artists’ Camps of Mosman Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 1991).

Arthur Streeton on the beach at the Curlew Camp, painting what he liked to call ‘a little rotter’ (a small panel painting)

In the camps at Mosman, Streeton achieved his apogee, both in terms of personal contentment and sheer brilliance of painterly practice. In the second part of this article, we will examine the decisions that would take him to Britain in search of a career, and expose him to myriad artistic influences and to new zones of artistic endeavor.

Summation: A ‘pure’ landscapist?

At this stage, approximately half way through the exhibition, what may we conclude about the artist Arthur Streeton? It is clear that the powerful nexus of the older artists, Roberts/McCubbin, was now complemented by the nexus of two younger artists, Conder/Streeton, and that the latter had a far greater focus on pure landscapes and the study of atmosphere and light. Art historian Leigh Astbury takes this analysis much further, when he argues that most painters of the ‘Heidelberg’ School primarily aspired to be figure painters in our emerging nationalist narrative. He identifies Streeton as the one exception:

“Although they are today most popularly admired for their innovations in plein-air landscape painting, their contemporary art public attached greater value and significance to figure painting than to landscape painting. From very early in their careers the major Heidelberg artists (with the notable exception of Arthur Streeton) aspired to become figure painters; when they wished to express a national social ideal in the 1880s and 1890s, they invariably employed large-scale figure subjects.”[9]

Streeton had not had the same training in figural studies as had his peers. Admittedly, he did essay nationalist figures studies, as in the early Settler’s Camp, or Wheelan on his Log, and on a much smaller scale in Fire’s on! Lapstone Tunnel. His lack of figural training – which might explain the fumbled second figure in The Pioneer – was in fact the very quality that allowed him to emerge as a pure landscapist.

Practicalities:

The Art Gallery of NSW’s exhibition – Streeton – is open to the public from Nov 7 2020 to February 14, 2021. Tickets and information: www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/exhibitions/streeton/

References:

[1] Eleanor Finlay, Prelude to Heidelberg. The Artists’ Camp at Box Hill. (Melbourne: Victoria College Press, 1991), p. 1.

[2] Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 24.

[3] Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 27.

[4] Cited in Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 46.

[5] Cited in Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 48.

[6] Cited in Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 27.

[7] Mary Eagle, The Oil Paintings of Charles Conder in the National Gallery of Australia (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1997), p. 41.

[8] Cited in Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton, Queensland: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 37.

[9] Leigh Astbury, City Bushmen. The Heidelberg School and the Rural Mythology. (Oxford: Oxford University Press, 1985), p. 2.

Dr Michael Adcock

Dr Michael Adcock is a social and cultural historian who specialises in the field of modern France. He has published works on the French Revolution with Cambridge University Press. Michael has over ten years’ experience in leading residential study tours in Paris and France. He has a strong interest in the interpretation of the arts in the context of the political and social moment in which they were created. Michael holds a Bachelor of Arts (Combined First-Class Honours in French and History), a Master of Arts (French History) and a Doctor of Philosophy (French History), all from the University of Melbourne. Michael led his first Academy Travel tour to Paris in 2006 and speaks fluent French.

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