Arthur Streeton | The Unknown Streeton

The ‘unknown’ Streeton might more accurately be termed the less well-known Streeton, in the sense that art galleries will usually hang his iconic Australian works in some numbers, but will tend to show only a few examples of his work done outside this country. The average visitor might see the odd Cairo painting, or an English landscape, or a Somme scene, but remain unaware of the full scope of each significant corpus of work. The Art Gallery of New South Wales has again excelled itself by mounting a comprehensive exhibition that will allow us to ‘read Streeton whole’, and to appreciate the extraordinary efforts he made to industriously construct a new career path and artistic direction post-Heildelberg.

Arthur Streeton in Cairo, 1897 

In January 1897, Streeton determined to follow Tom Roberts’ example and to make his way to Britain, to try his hand in the lucrative London art market.

As Streeton made his way by ship to Britain, he planned two stopovers. The first was in Cairo. The choice may seem strange, especially given that it has now emerged that the artist suffered from the same xenophopia that many Anglo-Saxon Australians felt in the late 19th century. He planned a stopover of one week, which suggests that he had no idea of the wealth of impressions Egypt would offer him. Upon arrival, he was enchanted by the place, realised that it offered a wealth of wonderful subjects, and stayed for two months.

Streeton’s Cairo Street (1897, National Gallery of Australia)

Art historian Mary Eagle believes that he might actually have stayed six or seven weeks at most. (Streeton later wove this into a personal mythology, writing lyrically, but inaccurately, “I bowed before the beauty of Grand Cairo in 1898, intending to enjoy one week in the city. I became a worshipper for five months.”) Moreover, he appears to have been cured of any racist attitudes towards non-British people: his subsequent recorded comments show no hint of his previous attitudes. Artistically, this was a goldmine; in personal terms, it was a transforming revelation.

This first corpus of post-Heidelberg works proves two points. First, Streeton’s study of Australian light was exponentially intensified when he was exposed to the even more brilliant light and glare of Egypt. He wrote lyrically:

“There is an unusual brilliance in the morning in Cairo and a distinctive, pleasant fragrance, perhaps resulting from mignonette, clover piled on camels’ backs, coffee incense and other flavours of the orient … and tall minarets in pink and white tower in to the blue air, while below tourists swarm with their brilliant dragomen.”[1]

An artist reinvents himself and maps out a career

Cairo would indeed provide Streeton with some of his most breathtaking studies of light and atmosphere. Second, however, his preoccupations were by now not solely painterly: there was the commercial consideration of an ongoing career. After the heady, youthful days of the Heidelberg School and their carefree poverty, there was the need to cultivate a viable artistic practice. Streeton was thinking strategically: he aspired to carve out a place in the highly competitive art world of London, and he wanted to arrive with a compelling corpus of works that would immediately establish him as a serious artist and would, preferably, be saleable.

Thus, as he travelled from Australia to England on the French ship Polynesien, he seized the opportunity to stop off in Cairo in the winter of 1897. This became a substantial stay, but there could be no question of the leisurely painting en plein air as previously in the unhurried Heidelberg days. It became more of a ‘harvesting’ visit: Streeton quickly did multiple pencil sketches, watercolour sketches – and took photographs – to gather in as many motifs as possible, to be used as a basis for larger paintings on canvas, usually to be executed in more favourable studio conditions when in London.

The ready commercial appeal of ‘Orientalist’ paintings

Reading between the lines, we might extrapolate some of Streeton’s strategic thinking as he combed the streets of Cairo. A shrewd observer of the art world, he would have been well-aware that there already existed a long tradition of ‘Orientalist’ painting in both Britain and Europe, with themes and motifs that would be far more familiar there than any of his Australian scenes. Like so many tourists and painters before him, he would therefore block out any modern elements of Egypt and seek traces of traditional and picturesque local life.

Streeton’s Egyptian Drink Seller (1897, National Gallery of Australia)

What would make his works different, when put up for sale, would be that he would re-purpose his Australian study of light and atmosphere to create luminous orientalist scenes like no other.

Streeton’s confection of an imagined Orient

To properly understand this part of the exhibition, we need to remember historian Mary Eagle’s view that Streeton quickly discovered that it was almost impossible to do on-the-spot sketching, least of all painting, in the crowded conditions of Cairo. Passers-by would bump his elbows, beggars and vendors would importune him. She believes that he was only able to do a small number of sketches, and that all the oil paintings had to have been painted later in London. She contends that this is why his travelling companion, Walter Barnett, gave Streeton his camera when he departed Cairo, this being the only practicable means of capturing images of the city. Streeton also resorted to buying commercially-made tourist photographs.

Exhibition curator Emma Kindred, by contrast, believes that some of the smaller paintings could have been executed on the spot in Cairo. One of the first works Streeton did there was Cairo Street Scene (Azbakiya Gardens) (Private Collection, 1897), almost certainly done from the balcony of his Bristol Hotel room, where he could have worked unimpeded. Rarely seen in public exhibition, this gem from a private collection displays breathtaking assurance. Another small-format canvas, House Builders, Cairo (1897, National Gallery of Australia), is not much bigger than a postcard. This view of dry, light-soaked wall beguiles the eye, because it denies the view the comfort of clear architectural structures. It might well have been practicable for Streeton to carry these small format canvases and paints and brushes in the bustling city.

Streeton’s House Builders, Cairo (1897, National Gallery of Australia)

The larger paintings of Cairo, however, were certainly retrospective and artificial constructs, no longer immediate records painted en plein air by the artist on the spot. Even though Streeton stayed for nearly two months, there was no time to work up finished oil paintings. He used instead the most expeditious means available: pencil sketches, watercolours and even basic photography. This means that the main process at work here was one of selection and elimination. Streeton would have seen that the Cairo of the 1890s was both modernising and westernizing but – like so many tourists and artists alike – he filtered out the modern and set out in search of imagined ‘oriental’ and ‘exotic’. It would be in London that Streeton – equipped with a proper studio and professional canvases – would turn his documentary material into formal oil paintings. But this does not mean that a sketch of, say, a mosque, became a painting of a mosque: Streeton would mix and match, joining a sketch of a mosque with a sketch of a market. For example, Mary Eagle’s analysis of the monuments shown in Minarets, Cairo (1897, Private Collection) – allegedly at the Bab Zuweila Gate – makes it clear, from analysis of the monuments shown, that Streeton borrowed bits and pieces of architecture from all over the city, creating a jigsaw puzzle of nonsense that would have left any Cairene hysterical with laughter. In Sydney terms, it would be as absurd as showing the Opera House beside Central Station and with elements of the Queen Victoria Building worked in for good measure. Streeton was, in a word, confecting an imagined, and purely fictive, ‘Orient’.

Streeton’s Minarets, Cairo (1897, Private Collection)

This said, these paintings do have the integrity of recording the very genuine experience of an Anglo-Saxon Australian who left our shores carrying the usual baggage of xenophobic superiority/hostility to foreign cultures, but who was instantly bedazzled and intrigued by the world he discovered in Cairo. And these paintings are of a superlative technical standard.

Who was Fatima Habiba? 

One of the most startling and thought-provoking paintings is an alleged portrait of a Muslim woman named Fatima Habiba; her name is inscribed on the canvas, as if to suggest that Streeton had met and painted a real person of that name.

Streeton’s  Fatima Habiba (1897, Art Gallery of South Australia)

He might have done so, but there is much debate as to whether such an encounter with a Muslim woman, however innocent, could ever have happened. It is true that the sitter is showing the traditional signs of modesty: she is heavily veiled in black, and she carefully keeps her eyes slightly averted from direct eye contact with the artist, another form of female modesty. We will never know whether this encounter was real or fictive. Curator Emma Kindred has researched Streeton’s travel notes, and found one possible source of the image. He described how he was walking in a street and came across of procession of women from a harem, who were bewailing the death of their pasha. Most of them ignored the westerner, but the last woman in the file momentarily looked Streeton in the eye and gave him a great cheeky, cheerful wink, to which the artist responded in gallant kind. It was an encounter of just a few seconds, and could never have been predicted. One wonders whether Streeton in fact simply remembered this face, and recorded it soon after. What we do know is that Streeton created one of the most extraordinary and exceptional compositions of his career, almost worthy of the abstractions of a Kasimir Malevich. And, for a master of the elongated horizontal format, and of the elongated vertical format, we are astonished to see one of the rare square formats in his entire oeuvre, enclosed in a heavy black frame.

Her figure becomes a massive, somber, pyramidal form, filling pictorial space, looming close to the picture plane, her black garment extending to touch all four sides of the canvas. She is placed against a blank wall, upon which bright sunlight creates a stark luminosity – Streeton’s expertise with Australia’s ‘hot roads’ is here redeployed – rendered by a whitish paint tinged with touches of pink and even a few dabs of scarlet. As Emma Kindred points out, the ‘hijab’ was a crucial part of a Muslim woman’s culture and identity; she would have valued it as a way of appearing modest, not mysterious. The black face veil indicates that the woman was probably working class, while the nosepiece indicates that she was probably married. For western artists, this form of clothing appealed to the myth of the mysterious, unknowable Oriental woman.[2]

Arthur Streeton in England

After a second painting campaign in Naples, Streeton duly arrived in England in May 1897 and took up residence in the Joubert Mansions, Chelsea, which offered artists affordable but shabby studios. He found the lodgings depressing, the English winter unbearable, and the English art world devastatingly unreceptive. Loneliness and depression set in. He wrote miserably to Roberts that he could not buy enough coal, he had a permanent cough, and even his four kittens had died of the cold. He could, however, continue to ramble through the art galleries.

Photo of Streeton in London, c. 1905

Art historian Christopher Wray contends that the nett impact of British art – from Constable, through Turner, Watts and current masters such as Phillip Wilson Steer – was at once seminal and confusing: Streeton allegedly lost the unity of his Australian vision, and swam amidst a potent mix of new influences and styles. His landscapes become darker in tone and heavier in paint surface.[3]

Streeton’s Victoria Tower, Westminster (1912, Art Gallery of South Australia)

The present exhibition invites us to re-evaluate this body of work done in England. Rather than making value judgments pegged against the Australian works, it is worth contemplating these English works to observe an artist making heroic, almost Herculean, efforts to engage with a landscape and an atmosphere so antithetical to what he had studied in Australia.

Streeton in due course met Phillip Wilson Steer, at that time considered to be England’s greatest landscape painter. Streeton wrote to Roberts that Steer was perfectly amiable in person, but did not like Streeton’s painting. Streeton feistily recounted: “I’ve been down this summer painting his favourite subject and painting it in my own way, and I begin to feel I am all right. They’ll have to accept me yet.”[4] Although Steer aspired to introduce some of the elements of French Impressionism into British art, he also inscribed himself in a much older tradition of landscape art, travelling England – in the 1890s and 1900s – in the footsteps of Turner and Constable, and painting the same scenes they had painted. Streeton now followed the same itinerary, partly out of his own admiration for Turner, partly out of rivalry with Steer.

Streeton’s The Centre of the Empire (Foggy Morning) 1902

His great masterpiece is a monumental painting of Trafalgar Square, The Centre of he Empire (or Foggy Morning) painted from the top of St. Martin’s Church in December 1902. One version of this is familiar from the collections of the National Gallery of Victoria, but this exhibition brings us the less well-known version – rarely seen – from a private collection. Streeton worked hard, drawing the composition in one day, and painting it in four. As a study of a foggy atmosphere – with the progressive dematerialisation of solid forms – the painting is masterly.

Several other works in the exhibition struck me by their monumental scale and their rugged paintwork. Malham Cove (1910, AGNSW) provides a plunging view from midway up the side of a valley, down into the dense green foliage of the valley floor, above which rises a massive face of rock gleaming in the light; probably the most extreme light-dark contrast in Streeton’s work.

Streeton’s Malham Cove (1910, AGNSW)

Corfe Castle (1909) is another vast canvas, painted in a muscular style with thick, billowing paintwork. The dark mass of the castle – destroyed during the English Civil War – is half illuminated and half darkened, and stands out like some ancient monolith against the writhing clouds in the sky.

Streeton’s Corfe Castle (1909)

Finally, Chelsea (1905, Art Gallery of Western Australia), and two nearby river scenes, bear testimony to Streeton’s engagement with the hivernal beauty of the Thames, possibly under the influence of having seen some of Whistler’s works in London. Also remarkable is Windsor (1904, National Gallery of Victoria), which relegates the famous castle to the background, and emphasizes the heavy industrial landscape of sheds and rusty carriages by the river.

Streeton’s Windsor (1904, National Gallery of Victoria)

Arthur Streeton in Venice, 1908-1909

Streeton began planning a trip to Venice in May 1907. It was made possible by a sudden upturn in his career: he had just held two major exhibitions – one in Sydney and one in Melbourne – and for the first time in his life was actually wealthy. This finally enabled him to marry his partner, the eminent musician Nora Clench, in January 1908. Together they planned a second honeymoon, to occur in Venice. There would in fact be two such trips – one in April-May and another in September-October 1908 – so close in time that historians have difficulty identifying which works were done on each.

Streeton now worked with his characteristic industry, and produced a significant corpus of about eighty Venetian works, fifty-four of which were oils. By 1909, he was exhibiting them at the Alpine Club in London, and subsequently at the Guild Hall in Melbourne. Where the Cairo works had been a failure in commercial terms, these Venice works accomplished what Streeton had hoped for: a wealthy clientele and steady sales. Gone, now, was the colloquial and bohemian painter: Nora was an accomplished musician and quite the grand lady, and they travelled in the style befitting all wealthy Edwardian tourists.

Streeton’s choice of Venice for his honeymoon was almost certainly based upon a calculation that it would provide him with a superlative array of subjects and perhaps more importantly, of views that would be immediately familiar to the wealthy art collectors he courted in Britain and Australia alike. And yet, as art historian Roger Benjamin has presciently suggested, his task was not going to be easy, because he was stepping into a field littered with all-powerful artistic precedents.[5] There was the tradition of the 18th century views (veduti) painted by Canaletto and Guardi. Closer to home, there was the overpowering, almost magnetic influence of Turner and Bonington. More recently, the great Claude Monet had turned his brush to The Serene City, although Streeton may not yet have been aware of these. And then there was the truly feeric Venice conjured out of mists by James McNeill Whistler.

Streeton would inevitably have come under the spell of the works of the great Turner when in London and, equally, of the graphic work of James McNeill Whistler, who did two major groups of etchings on Venetian themes. To his credit, Streeton did not try to reproduce the ethereal, minimalistic works of Whistler: most artists would note and admire his example, but would prudently avoid trying to replicate it. Streeton found his own way, which was to endow the shimmering city and its luminous atmosphere with greater materiality than Whistler ever did.

Far from being deterred by the weighty tradition of the ‘veduta’ – from Canaletto to Turner – Streeton embraced it, and calmly painted his own views, such as The Grand Canal (1908, Susan Clarke Collection) in the exhibition. It is a breathtakingly assured study, predicated on a powerful contrast of sunlight and shade on either side of the scene.

Another painting in the exhibition, however, captures the ‘then and there’ of Streeton’s Venice: in St. Mark’s, Venice (1908, Queensland Art Gallery) we see wealthy Edwardians – the class to which Nora belonged, and to which Streeton had now acceded – gathering at fashionable cafes in St. Mark’s Square; here it was that Nora sat reading Great Expectations, while Streeton painted nearby, surrounded by an oppressive and gawping crowd of some forty people.

Streeton’s St. Mark’s, Venice (1908, Queensland Art Gallery)

For Streeton, this was a supreme moment: his close friends, Emmanuel Phillips Fox and Ethel Carrick, had both painted sun-filled scenes there the previous year. And yet, Streeton chanced upon this iconic touristic site when the foreground was in very deep shadow, and he painted it just as he observed it, with the effect that the variegated crowd is somewhat lost to the viewer.

Two works in the exhibition allow us to glimpse Streeton’s reaction to the same monument under two different conditions of atmosphere and light: Santa Maria della Salute (grey) and Santa Maria della Salute (Sunny) are done from very nearly the same spot; the former emphasizes the sleek black elegance of the gondolas, whole the latter offers an exuberant burst of warm tones in the sails of a heavy transport boat, the Venetian equivalent of a lorry.

Another painting, Bridge of Sighs (1908, New England Regional Art Museum) offers a dramatic rear view of a gondola, with muscular boatman, forging ahead under the Bridge of Sighs; Streeton, in particular, relished these leisurely boat trips.

Streeton’s Bridge of Sighs (1908, New England Regional Art Museum)

Arthur Streeton, War Artist, 1918

Until recently, Streeton’s third large corpus of work outside Australia, begun at the Somme in 1918, was long perhaps the least known and least appreciated of his entire oeuvre. There were usually many unseen war paintings in art gallery vaults, but relatively few on the walls. This situation was remedied in 2017 by a superlative and compelling survey exhibition.[6]

GEORGE LAMBERT Arthur Streeton (1917, Australian War Memorial)

It is, perhaps, tempting to think of a period of war service as a lacuna in an artist’s career, given that this is ‘official’ service, and that its purpose is allegedly scrupulous documentation rather than personal invention, experimentation and creativity. Of course, nothing could be further from the truth: a truly great national artist does not become any less a great artist because he or she records subjects and themes hitherto absent in their artistic production. This exhibition proved that Streeton remained an exceptional artist whilst in service, and produced a large corpus of work of compelling power, beauty and poignancy. My contention is that Arthur Streeton was not trained as a military painter, and that this apparent ‘deficiency’, paradoxically, guaranteed a most exceptional and insightful visual record of the conflict.

Streeton did not initially see himself as a frontline war artist: he had simply volunteered to the British Royal Army Medical Corps in 1915, and spent much of the war working as a medical orderly, dressing the wounds of incoming troops at the General Hospital at Wandsworth, in London. During this time, it seemed that his artistic skills could be of no greater use than in designing posters advertising entertainments for wounded troops.

Streeton finally went to France as an official war artist in May 1918, thus, when the earlier stalemate of the war had been broken, and when Australian and British troops were beginning to win some victories, and when the frontline, previously bogged down in stalemate, became much more volatile, dynamic and changeable.

These oils certainly have the authenticity of being based upon direct observation and recording, but they were most definitely not executed whilst the painter was at the Western Front: he produced them in late 1918 and during 1919, when he had retuned to London. These would have required studio space and access to materials that were simply not available to him whilst at the front. Indeed, while he ate with the officers in the mansion HQ at St. Gratien, he did not have a room there, and slept in a tent, with the other soldiers, in the grounds of the estate.

A large canvas, Boulogne (1918, Art Gallery of New South Wales) is one of the most imposing of the war works.

Streeton’s Boulogne (1918, AGNSW)

Streeton was first sent, upon arrival, to a training base in Boulogne, and while there he executed a number of sketches from the vantage point of the Hotel Louvre, from which he then worked up this vast painting when he was back in his studio in London. It is a cityscape, showing the rail yards in the foreground, against a backdrop of the town hall and houses of part of the city. It is a truly panoramic view, a sunlit scene animated by the thrusting energy of the steam locomotive arriving, its spiraling plume of black and grey smoke ascending the full height of the canvas. Streeton was obviously struck by a phenomenon that would have appeared routine and unremarkable to military personnel: the logistics of war, the vast, concerted plan to move tens of thousands of men up to the front, tons of supplies and hundreds of weapons. Vast columns of men are on the march, some arriving, some departing. Streeton was particularly struck by the regimentation of hundreds of men into marching columns. Two carriages on the train have large cannon on board. Nearly all the trucks visible are ambulances.

The exhibition offers a major work from a private collection in London. Streeton’s The Tunnel Mouth, Bellicourt; the Hindenburg Line, the southern entrance to the tunnel (London, December 1918) asserts more eloquently than any other work the fact that Streeton continued to work with complete artistic creativity whilst on ‘official’ duties.

Streeton’s The Tunnel Mouth, Bellicourt; the Hindenburg Line, the southern entrance to the tunnel (London, December 1918. Sir Michael Hintze Collection, London)

Because Streeton arrived quite late in the war, he did witness Australian troops beginning to capture German positions. In this case, he depicted a canal tunnel joining the Somme and the Scheldt Rivers, used not only for the movement of troops underground, but also the residential housing of German troops in barges. Streeton notes the Australian troops guarding the tunnel on the smashed jetty at right. However, always the consummate artist, Streeton could not resist the compositional novelty offered by the vast rectangle of wall containing the dark form of a large rounded arch. He also revels in the light and texture of the sandstone catching direct sunlight, and notes an effect of light in one place with a bold impasto of yellow, brown and pinkish-white.

Perhaps the most compelling pictures, though, are scenes such as Villers Bretonneux (1918, Art Gallery of New South Wales) and The Somme Valley Near Corbie (1919, Australian War Memorial).

Villers Bretonneux (1918, Art Gallery of New South Wales)
Streeton’s The Somme Valley Near Corbie (1919, Australian War Memorial)

Streeton worked on two distinct scales: he tended to paint actual battles from a quite distant point, but to depict the ruined aftermath and detritus of war from a very close viewpoint. Art historian Andrew Yip has noted that Streeton did not attempt to emulate the likes of Frank Hurley, who plunged into life at the front line in order to record it. In a number of vast paintings, Streeton devotes at least half the canvas to a bucolic representation of the Somme Valley, reminiscent of his great river valley views done in Australia on the Hawkesbury. The battlefield, and sometimes the battle, are in the very far distance. Art historian Ann Galbally has attested that Streeton’s letters show very little awareness of, or concern for, the human suffering of war. Even allowing for the exigencies of censorship, his letters are remarkably silent about the physical and mental trauma war inflicts upon its participants, an aspect that other artists, such as George Lambert, commented upon much more feelingly.[7]

Coda 

There are many other aspects of this wonderful exhibition that will intrigue and delight visitors, but I must leave some elements for people to discover for themselves. Some will be surprised by Streeton’s ‘Symbolist’ works, others by the late still-life paintings done with flowers from Streeton’s beloved gardens. Just as Streeton offered us panoramas of magnificent landscapes, this exhibition will offer us, in turn, a sweeping view of an extraordinary artistic career.

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] Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 86.

[2] For more information, see Emma Kindred’s excellent essay on Streeton in Cairo: Streeton (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2019), pp. 153-163.

[3] Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 96.

[4] Christopher Wray, Arthur Streeton. Painter of Light (Milton: Jacaranda Wiley, 1993), p. 99.

[5] See: Roger Benjamin, ‘Streeton’s Venice’, in Streeton (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2019), pp. 213-231.

[6] Anne Gray et. al., Arthur Streeton. The Art of War (Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 2017).

[7] Andrew Yip, ‘Painting the Somme’, in Wayne Tunnicliffe (ed.), Streeton. (Sydney: Art Gallery of New South Wales, 2020), pp. 234-251.

Dr Michael Adcock

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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