Home » London Book Review - Non Fiction » Book Review : Australia’s Impressionists – edited by Christopher Riopelle (National Gallery)

Book Review : Australia’s Impressionists – edited by Christopher Riopelle (National Gallery)

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Impressionism is considered a European art movement, however this book and the National Gallery’s new exhibition Australian Impressionists due to open in December 2016 provide evidence that the movement had a wider global influence and inspired a group of Australian artists who became known as the ‘Australian Impressionists’.

The first chapter in the book entitled Australia’s Impressionists in a World Context by Christopher Riopelle considers how the rise of national self-consciousness in the late 19th and early 20th centuries led to artists in Scandinavia, America, Japan and other countries to explore new ways of self-expression. The rise of the Impressionist movement encouraged artists to move outside their studios and paint the world around them. The practice of painting en plein air (in the open air) was often linked to ideas of national identity in many countries.

The complex interaction of these forces is illustrated by looking at the paintings of Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909) and John Russell (1858–1930). All of these artists were key players in creating a distinct Australian art movement which although influenced by the European tradition of plein-air painting developed a new Australian landscape style. Three of the artists worked mainly in Australia, however John Russell lived in France for most of his life, and was friends with Vincent van Gogh and Claude Monet.  

The second chapter, The Sunny South by Tim Bonyhady charts how Roberts, Condor and Streeton embraced ‘plein-air’ painting to illustrate some of unique qualities of  Australian landscapes. Many of these landscapes portrayed the vastness of the land and oceans and the power of the sun that created a dazzling glare.

The chapter about the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition looks in detail at the exhibition of 1889 which promoted the works of Roberts, Streeton, and Conder. It was staged in Melbourne and provided Australians with their first look at a local variant of the Impressionist movement. The exhibition was the subject of considerable press interest, however the critical reception was mixed with many critics influenced by John Ruskin’s unflattering views on the Impressionist movement. Despite the criticism, Australian Impressionist painters were in the vanguard of asserting a distinctive Australian identity. The chapter Creating a National Identity by Sarah Thomas discusses this process and how a shared new national identity was developed that paid homage to the hard working pioneers such as stockmen, drovers, gold miners and shearers.

Away from the nation building in Australia, John Russell was discovering the landscape of Brittany. Russell’s relationship with Tom Roberts in particular provided a bridge between the latest developments in Europe and the Australian movement. Russell tried to communicate to Roberts some of the techniques of French Impressionism especially in the use of colour. What effect these views had on Roberts and the other Australian impressionists is difficult to know but they did provide a direct link between artists thousands of miles apart.

This fascinating book explores the little known works of Australia’s Impressionists within the wider context of Impressionism as an international phenomenon.  The late 19th and 20th centuries were times of great political and social movements that sought to challenge the ‘old order’, art often played a part in these movements by creating images that portrayed favourable aspects of a particular identity. Looking through the stunning illustrations in the book, it is possible to identify how the ‘modern image of Australia’ was being gradually created by the artists which was vastly different from concepts of the British empire. Tom Roberts’ A Break Away and Arthur Streeton’s Fire On are reminiscent of images of the American Wild West, evoking ideas of pioneers creating a new land. It was these types of images that gained in popularity in Australia in the early  20th century. 

Visiting London Guide Rating – Highly Recommended

For more information or to buy a copy, visit the National Gallery website here

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