Australian Heidelberg School of Artists

Who were the Heidelberg School of Artists

July 28th, 2013

Australian Heidelberg School of Artists

The Heidelberg School was an exciting and vital part of Australian art history; it saw a revolution in how the world saw Australia not only as a country, but as force in the art world community. The unique style of painting saw Australian representation, become more realistic in its portrayal of the landscape colours, and also of the flora depicted. Although numerous artists came under the classification of the Heidelberg school, it was the founding members of Arthur Streeton, Thomas Roberts, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin, that this essay will mainly focus on. This blog post will look at how the artists were placed under the banner of the Heidelberg school, and who coined the term. It will take an historical look at the settlement of the suburb of Heidelberg, and take in the history of three artists, Streeton, Roberts and Conder. It will look at how the artists of the Heidelberg school, changed Australian painting and how they still influence today.

The phrase "Heidelberg School" was first coined by Sidney Dickinson, an art critic who visited Australia from America. Dickinson, who saw an art exhibition of works by Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers, wrote a review in the "The Australian Critic" on July 1st 1891. The review centred on how Withers and Streeton's work, was mainly inspired and generated, in the suburb of Heidelberg. He spoke of other artists of like mind, who would congregate together for outside painting sessions in the Summer time. Dickinson wrote how the works achieved good attention because of the high standard of detail in their work. He stated the observational and artistic skills of the artists capture the essence of the land, and because of that, Australian art had the potential for future growth and development (Mackenzie n.d). Although the Heidelberg School phrase was given to highlight and encapsulate a group of artists, it was not an actual school. In fact the artists involved did not even share a common agenda, Heidelberg was simply a suburb they chose to depict in their various paintings (Australian Government, n.d).

The Sydney Morning Herald on the 8th of February 2004 reported that, Heidelberg is located 18km's North East of the city building district of Melbourne. Prior to early settlement of the Europeans, the Aboriginal people of the Wurundjeri Willam tribe occupied the area. The article stated that a 19th century depiction by a municipal directory revealed, a land of green hills sloping into rich flats with a river (the Yarra River), winding a pattern through the land. In 1835 pastoralists and orchardists saw its potential for development, and land sales started to occur in 1838. Heidelberg was truly embraced with a settlement in 1841, which included timber and farming industries. One of the earliest settlers was Alexander McKillop with his daughter Mary. The family was very religious and Mary grew up to co-found the Sisters of St Joseph. The Age newspaper on October 18, 2010 reported, that on the 17th of October 2010, Mary McKillop was canonized into the Roman Catholic Church as Australia's first ever saint, and renamed Mary of the Cross.

The original group of the Heidelberg School consisting of Frederick McCubbin, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, did not only confine themselves to just the Heidelberg area, in fact they often portrayed areas in and around Sydney, and further afield to the Richmond and Hawkesbury Rivers. Arthur Streeton travelled to the Hawkesbury River in 1896, where he produced a series of paintings that went on to be his most admired and famous works. One work in particular was depicted with intense light and exposure, portraying the essence of a hot summer's day. He called the title "The purple noon's transparent might" (1896), which was taken from a line of a poem, from a Poet, named Percy Shelley. It was proclaimed at the time that the emotional and physical state of mind whilst painting the work helped Streeton to achieve the quality of the work, and the idyllic serenity, which is portrayed. He was quoted as saying although the temperature was 10 degrees hotter than his body; he was excited and felt in a Trans like state, completing two thirds of the work in a two hour period. Streeton's fellow "Heidelberg School" acquaintance Frederick McCubbin said of his friends work, that it is like a symbol of heat and light intensity, and encapsulates Australian landscape so much; it should be a National Symbol. The work was acquired by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1896, and remains in their permanent collection (Australian Government n.d).

Arthur Streeton was born in Mount Duneed, Victoria, on the 8th of April 1867. After showing an early artistic talent he became a lithographer's apprentice. His first works went on exhibition in 1885, at the Victorian Academy of Art (Reid, 1977, 16). In 1918 he served with the 2nd division as a Lieutenant in the Australian Imperial Forces, as an official Australian war artist. He concentrated on what he considered to be "Military Still Life" paintings, featuring everyday solder life and landscapes showcasing the calm of the battlefields (Australian War Memorial).

In 1928 Streeton entered the Wynne Art Prize, a prestigious annual Landscape art prize held in conjunction with the more well known Archibald prize, founded by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. He won the award for his painting titled "Afternoon Light, Goulburn Valley". In 1929 he became an art critic for The Argus newspaper, a role he held for 7 years until 1935. In 1937 his distinguished art career was acknowledged and he was knighted, becoming Sir Arthur Streeton. He died in Olinda in Victoria in 1943, classed as one of Australia's most formidable landscape painters. (Galbally, 1990, 119-121.)

His friend and fellow original Heidelberg School counterpart Charles Conder, was born in 1868. Conder also a lithographer took an interest in designing silk fans which increased his fame, but it was his love for landscape painting, infectious laicism and humor in his works, that he is revered and remembered for most. Conder was sent by his father to be educated in England as a child, after the death of his mother. It was not until June 13 1884, that Conder sailed by boat to Australian shores arriving in Sydney. In 1888 he moved to Melbourne sharing a studio with Tom Roberts, a fellow painter. The two men became close and along with Arthur Streeton, they cemented a brotherly relationship that continued long after Conder relocated to Paris in 1890, to study art at Cormon's Atelier. In 1894 he moved to London and later married a wealthy Canadian widow in 1900. She took Conder from poverty to a life of luxury. He died in 1909 after mental illness saw him frequently admitted to the keeping of a sanatorium (Hoff, 1969, 446-447).

Tom Roberts another founding member of the Heidelberg School was born on the 9th of March, 1856 in England. He Migrated to Australia with his mother in 1869, after the death of his father. Roberts recognized the uniqueness of the Australian native flora, and after being the first Australian artist selected to study at the Royal Academy of Art in London, he returned to Melbourne in 1885 eager to put into practice the art of plein air painting, a knowledge which he shared with fellow artists such as Arthur Streeton. Streeton claimed Roberts's direction critically helped him with his painting (Topliss, 1988, 409-412). Roberts was held in such high esteem that in 1996, the Australian Mint celebrated his life with the issue of 20,000 limited edition five dollar coins with his imaged stamped on them (1996 Roberts five dollars).

Together the Heidelberg School artist's intention was to portray Australia's pioneering spirit, and bring a sense of celebration to their art. They had a desire to represent Australia as a place of beauty, and not a complete wilderness as perceived by the rest of the world (Mackenzie n.d). The Heidelberg school artists were fresh and innovative in their direction, although still kept the impressionist style popular on the international scene. They showed an eagerness to exploit the light and shade unique to the Australian bush, in a way that portrayed the real essence, of what the Australian landscape held. They believed Australia required a completely different approach to how European painters had previously portrayed the land. European paintings did not accurately depict the Australian sensitivity to color and light, and thus they opted to paint Australia as they saw European scenes, failing to showcase the rich earthier colors, and native flora of the sun drenched land as the Heidelberg School artists were able to achieve. Their work was a creative compliment to the writers, story tellers and poets of the period, adding a visual element to their tales in such a way that could only be described as a true and accurate account of Australia (Introduction to Australian Impressionism, n.d).

In 1889 Charles Conder, Tom Roberts, Jane Sutherland and Arthur Streeton, showcased an exhibition called 9 by 5, where they composed paintings on the lids of cigar boxes on the spot. The works appeared to look unfinished in relation to landscape and narrative works, considered appropriate for the time. (Wesfarmers Art, 2004). The paintings were of cities and people going about everyday business, the Princess Theatre and the Treasury buildings were features, and are still landmarks today known for their grandeur and architecture. One of the more well known acquired pieces by the Art Gallery of South Australia is one by Conder called, How we lost poor Flossie (1890). The exhibition was a hit with the general viewing public, however was condemned with harsh criticism by reviewers, in particular James Smith whom worked for the Argus, a Melbourne newspaper. Smith wrote that none of the painted works should be considered as art, and that it was simply a wash of colors' representing something the artist happened upon. Furious at the bad review, artists Streeton, Roberts and Conder together, wrote to defend their work to the paper in question arguing that, "Any form of nature which moves us strongly by its beauty, whether strong or vague in its drawing, defined or indefinite in its light, rare or ordinary in its color, is worthy of our best efforts" (Mackenzie n.d).

The artists of the "Heidelberg school association" continue to influence not only artists of modern day painting, but historians and lovers and admirers of art. People visiting Melbourne can explore the walking trail dedicated to the Heidelberg School; it consists of various painting spots frequented by some of Australia's greatest impressionist painters. The walking, cycling and self drive trail spans 40kms, travelling through suburbs such as the Yarra Valley, Banyule, Manningham and the Dandenong Ranges. It contains 57 self explanatory boards, placed strategically in places known to have been frequented by the famous Australian artists. The boards contain reproductions of the paintings, and facts about the individual works so people interested, can learn about the featured artists life and work and be inspired (Heidelberg School artist trail, n.d).

However not all artists inspired by the works of the Heidelberg School, are legitimate in their undertakings. In 2006 Catherine Murtagh wrote an article representing the University of Sydney, it was called the Effect of Fake Artworks on the Australian Art Market. In it she reported on artist Will Blundell, who was involved in painting what he called "Innuendos," painted copies of original artworks by master artists, including Sir Arthur Streeton. The works were sold for up to $65,000, although Blundell made a statement saying that although he did indeed paint them, it was his dealer who received the money. When Sir Arthur Streeton's grandson learnt about the fakes, he thought it was a very exciting time and believed the fakes played a very important and interesting role in subverting the art market, and the fact that they were selling for such a high price, was rather nice. Murtagh alleged that numerous galleries and auction houses were aware of the fakes, but chose to ignore the problem, leading to serious legal and ethical dilemmas, which could diminish the credibility of the Australian art constabulary (Murtage, 2006).

It is not only painters that feel the passions of the Heidelberg School; it is other genres of the art also, such as motion picture. The film Picnic at Hanging Rock produced in 1975, and adapted from the novel by author Joan Lindsay, told the true tale of 4 school girls after a trip to Hanging rock, went horribly wrong. The book is set in 1900, and to this day neither the book nor film, tells what happened to the remaining missing girls who have never been recovered (Ellis, n.d). The beauty and authenticity of the films depiction, is in credit to the Heidelberg school, and in particular to the paintings of Tom Roberts. The film's Director Peter Weir, attested to using Roberts's paintings as inspiration for the com-positional arrangement of the films natural settings of rugged bush land, and rocky outcrop (Picnic at Hanging Rock, n.d).

In conclusion, it is clear that the work of the Heidelberg school of artists not only changed the nature of how Australian landscapes were seen by the rest of the world, but also how they were depicted using the correct flora, and high level of detailing in brush strokes. The reality they were able to achieve changed the Australian art scene, giving Australian artists the credit they deserved both locally and internationally. The style of open air painting generated a color intensity not used by the earlier European artists, giving the Heidelberg school the opportunity to promote lasting change. This blog post has told about how the artists acquired the name of the Heidelberg school by art critic Sidney Dickinson, and what he said about the artists, it told of the originating members Streeton, Conder, McCubbin and Roberts, and gave an element of their individual history. It described how they changed Australian art and how they still are able to influence people today. These artists were at the forefront of the Australian painting revolution, and gave Australia and the world a greater appreciation for the beauty, diversity and difference, that is Australia.

By Karen Elzinga (COPYRIGHTED)


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