Heidelberg School
Australian Impressionism Movement: History, Characteristics.

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The Pioneer (1904)
National Gallery of Victoria.
By Frederick McCubbin.

Heidelberg School, Melbourne (c.1886-1900)


History and Characteristics
Art in Melbourne
9 by 5 Impression Exhibition
Australian Impressionist Art
Selected Paintings
Further Information

Obstruction (1887)
National Gallery of Victoria.
By Jane Sutherland.

For details of art movements
and styles, see: History of Art.
For a quick guide to specific
styles, see: Art Movements.

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History and Characteristics

In fine art, the Heidelberg School refers to the group of 19th century Australian painters who worked together in the late 1880s and early 1890s, in 'artist-camps' throughout the rural area of Heidelberg, to the east of Melbourne. Seen as an important movement of modern art in Australia, it is known in particular for its landscape painting of the scenery in the Yarra and Gippsland region, and received its name in July 1891 from the American art critic, Sidney Dickinson. The dominant style of painting among the group was Impressionism, executed using the technique of plein air painting, which has led historians to label the movement Australian Impressionism. In fact, the term 'Heidelberg School' now embraces all 19th century Impressionist painters in Australia, including those in Sydney, Brisbane, Darwin, Perth, and Adelaide - not just those in Melbourne. Leading members of the original Melbourne group included Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), Charles Conder (1868-1909) and Fred McCubbin (1855-1917), while others associated with the group included: Walter Withers (1854-1914), John Longstaff (1861-1941), David Davies (1864-1939), Clara Southern (1861-1940), Jane Sutherland (1853-1928), Emanuel Phillips Fox (1865–1915) and Ethel Carrick Fox (1872–1951). Impressionist landscape painting by members of the Heidelberg School can be seen in all the best art museums in Australia, including the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra; the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne; the Art Gallery of South Australia (AGSA) in Adelaide; the Art Gallery of New South Wales (AGNSW) in Sydney; the Queensland Art Gallery (QAG) in Brisbane; the Art Gallery of Western Australia (AGWA) in Perth and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

Going Home (1889)
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
By Charles Conder. One of Conder's
most famous landscape paintings.

For a guide, see: Definition of Art.

Art in Melbourne

The evolution of Australian Impressionism is inextricably linked with the city of Melbourne, where it flourished in the 1880s because of the city's expanding economy and its cultural sophistication, as well as the rise in leisure time along with a corresponding rise in the sense of national identity. The Australian Impressionists contribution to Victorian art (as a whole) were stimulated by the city's lively artistic climate and reflected a wide range of artistic influences, from traditional practice to the more progressive European modern art movements of plein-air painting, Aestheticism and Symbolism.

Melbourne may have been the most cultural and artistic city in Australia, but few of the city's artists who were associated with the Heidelberg School were able to support themselves financially through their art alone - at least not until later in their careers. Roberts, for instance, worked as a photographer's assistant, while Streeton was a junior clerk before learning lithography, and Conder trained as a surveyor in New South Wales before finding a short-term career in illustration for the Illustrated Sydney News. And McCubbin worked in the family bakery business as well as a coach painter during his early art career.

Nearly all the artists associated with the Heidelberg received at least some art training at the National Gallery School (NGS) in Melbourne, which opened its doors in 1870. Classes followed the European model, with students starting in the School of Design where they absorbed the fundamentals of drawing, outline drawing and modelling of form. They progressed from drawing plaster casts of Greek and Roman statues to figure drawing from the human figure. The School of Painting taught traditional painting skills, including compositional skills and the academic method of building up a painting in multi-layers, starting with thin paint and dark tones, and ending with thicker paint and lighter tones.

During the 1870s and 1880s, emigrant artists from Europe brought first-hand experience of new forms of international art to Australia. They included: the Irish-born George Frederick Folingsby (1828–91), who arrived in Australia in 1879 and became Master of the School of Painting at the NGS in 1882; the Swiss artist Abram Louis Buvelot (1814–88) who arrived in 1865 and taught at the Carlton School of Design in Melbourne; the English-born art teacher Julian Ashton (1851–1942) who settled in Sydney where he ran one of the best art schools in New South Wales; the English-born plein-air specialist A.J.Daplyn (1844–1926) who arrived in Australia in 1882 and shared his experience of Fontainebleau and the Barbizon School of landscape painting, before later writing a book entitled Landscape Painting from Nature in Australia (1902); the Italian-born painter Girolamo Pieri Ballati Nerli (1860–1926), influenced by the Macchiaioli group, who first lived in Melbourne before moving to Sydney in 1886; the Portuguese-born plein-air artist and Symbolist painter Arthur Jose De Souza Loureiro (1853–1932).



9 by 5 Impression Exhibition (1889)

One of the most important group shows staged by members of Melbourne's Heidelberg group was the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, held in 1889 at Buxton's Rooms, by the Melbourne Town Hall. Named after the dimensions of most of its paintings - 9 by 5 inches, which represented the size of a cigar box lid on which many of the pictures were painted - and its style of Impressionism, the show featured 183 works (a third of which survive in public collections throughout Australia) and - like Impressionist Exhibitions in Paris - received a mixed response from the art critics. The main participants included Charles Conder, who worked as an artist for the Illustrated Sydney News, and was a member of the Art Society of New South Wales; Tom Roberts, the Royal Academy-trained painter and Melbourne picture-frame-maker; and Arthur Streeton, the Geelong artist who was an ardent admirer of Turner as well as the French Impressionists. Another important Australian Impressionist who participated was Frederick McCubbin, an instructor and master of the School of Design at the National Gallery of Victoria, who in fact taught both Conder and Streeton. Many members of the Heidelberg School who exhibited at the show also belonged to the Victorian Artists Society, founded in Melbourne in 1856, which was the fore-runner of the Victorian Academy of Arts, set up in 1870.

Australian Impressionist Art

The term Heidelberg School came about only because Streeton, Conder and Roberts spent two summers living in a farmhouse at Heidelberg, painting the surrounding countryside. Roberts, however, did not spend much time at Heidelberg, Jane Sutherland - being a woman - was prevented from staying overnight and visited only during the day, and McCubbin didn't stay there at all. Furthermore, despite painting together at sites such as Box Hill and Heidelberg, and sharing some sense of group identity, none of the painters shared the same aesthetics.

The principal defining element of the Heidelberg School was its open-air painting (plein-airism) similar to that taking place, in France, England, Europe and America. (See also: Characteristics of Impressionist Painting 1870-1910.) Although rapidly executed oil sketches of outdoor scenery were an important part of the work of many 19th-century artists, most artists did not treat them as finished works of art, but as preliminary studies to be worked up and completed in studio. By contrast the Australian Impressionists - like their Parisian counterparts Camille Pissarro (1830-1903) and Alfred Sisley (1839-1899) - treated these quick outdoor oil sketches as finished items. That said, the Heidelberg school was more in tune with the naturalist realism of Barbizon painter Jean-Francois Millet (1814-75), as developed by Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-84) and the naturalism of the Hague school (for more, see Post Impressionism in Holland), than the non-naturalism of Claude Monet (1840-1926). True, 19th century Australian Impressionists did not venture as deep into the outback as did later representatives of modern Australian painting, like Russell Drysdale (1912-81) and Sidney Nolan (1917-92), but they succeeded for the first time in capturing the harsh sunlight, earthy colours, and distinctive features of the Australian hinterland.


So, while the Heidelberg School followed the general style of Impressionism, typified by bold loose brushstrokes, lack of clearly defined form, and a desire to create a faithful optical record of colour and light effects, it found its bright chromatic colour too extreme for use in Australia. This was because most Australian artists maintained a strong interest in Naturalism, and a commitment to creating a distinctly Australian style of realist painting that reflected local character and colour. As a result, Roberts, Streeton, McCubbin and Conder tended to use a more naturalist colour palette. Moreover, in quite a few of their paintings, they included elements of traditional academic art, such as figures painted with a clear, firm outline and strongly modelled form.

Note: for more about the connections between Realist and Impressionist art, see: Realism to Impressionism (1830-1900).

Selected Paintings

Among many outstanding Impressionist paintings by the Heidelberg School are the following:

Charles Conder
Herrick's Blossoms (1888) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.
A Holiday at Mentone (1888) Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.
Going Home (1889) National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

Tom Roberts
Allegro Con Brio, Bourke St West (c.1885–86) National Gallery of Australia.
Blue Eyes and Brown (1887-88) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Evening Train to Hawthorn (1889) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Woman at the Piano (1889) Art Gallery of South Australia.
Shearing the Rams (1890) National Gallery of Victoria.

Arthur Streeton
Windy and Wet (1889) National Gallery of Victoria.
Near Heidelberg (1890) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
Fire's On, Lapstone Tunnel (1891) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
The Railway Station, Redfern (1893) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
The Point Wharf, Mosman Bay (1893) Private collection, Sydney.
The Purple Noon's Transparent Might (1896) National Gallery of Victoria.

Frederick McCubbin
Lost (1886) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
The City's Toil (1887) Famdal Collection, Sydney.
On the Wallaby Track (1896) Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney.
Down on His Luck (1889) Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth.
The Pioneer (1904) National Gallery of Victoria.

Clara Southern
An Old Bee Farm (1900) National Gallery of Victoria.

Jane Sutherland
Obstruction, Box Hill (c.1885) Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
On the Last Tramp (1888) Private collection, Western Australia.
The Mushroom Gatherers (c.1895) National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.

Further Information

For more about the evolution of Impressionist art, see:

- Impressionism: Origins, Influences.
- Impressionism: Early History.
- Impressionist Painting Developments.

• For a chronological guide to 19th century painting, see: History of Art Timeline.
• For information about Australian painting and sculpture, see: Homepage.

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