Australian Impressionism

Australian Impressionism

The Heidelberg School was an Australian art movement of the late 19th century. The movement has latterly been described as Australian Impressionism.[1]

The term was coined in July 1891 by local art critic Sidney Dickenson, reviewing the works of Melbourne-based artists Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers. Dickenson noted that these artists, whose works were mostly painted in the Heidelberg area, could be considered as "The Heidelberg School". Since that time, The Heidelberg School has taken on a wider meaning and covers Australian artists of the late nineteenth century who painted plein-air in the impressionist tradition. These artists were inspired by the beautiful landscapes of the Yarra and the unique light that typifies the Australian bush.

The works of these artists are notable, not only for their merits as compositions, but as part of Australia's historical record. The period immediately before Federation is the setting for many classic Australian stories of the "bush", both fact and fiction. The School's work provides a visual complement to these tales and their images have embedded themselves into Australia's historical subconscious. Many of the artworks can be seen in Australian galleries, notably the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Gallery of Australia and the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.


The name refers to the then rural area of Heidelberg east of Melbourne where practitioners of the style found their subject matter, though usage expanded to cover other Australian artists working in similar areas. The core group painted there on several occasions at "artist's camps" in the late 1880s and early 1890s. Besides Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers, other major artists in the movement included Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder.[2] See below for a list of other associated artists.

9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In August 1889, several artists of the Heidelberg School staged the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition at Buxton's Rooms, Swanston Street, opposite the Melbourne Town Hall. The exhibition's three principal artists were Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton, with minor contributions from Frederick McCubbin, National Gallery students R.E. Falls and Herbert Daly, and sculptor Charles Douglas Richardson, who exhibited five sculpted impressions. Most of the 183 works included in the exhibition were painted on 9 by 5 inch (23 × 13 cm) cigar-box panels, scrounged from local tobacconists, including Louis Abrahams, whose father ran a cigar business. The large flat frames were supplied by a timber merchant and decorated by the artists, giving the works an "unconventional, avant garde look".[3]

Response from critics and the public was mixed. The most scathing review came from leading critic James Smith, who said the 9 by 5s were "destitute of all sense of the beautiful" and "whatever influence [the exhibition] was likely to exercise could scarcely be otherwise than misleading and pernicious."[4] The artists pasted up the review outside the entrance of the venue—attracting many more passing pedestrians—and responded with a letter to the Editor of Smith's newspaper, The Argus. Described as a manifesto, the letter defends freedom of choice in subject and technique, concluding:

The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition is now regarded as a landmark event in Australian art history.[5] Approximately one-third of the 9 by 5s are known to have survived, many of which are held in Australia's public collections.

Influences and style

The School's artists were clearly influenced by the international Impressionist movement, and took up many of the concepts of the group. They regularly painted plein air landscapes, as well as using art to depict daily life. They showed a keen interest in the instantaneous effects of lighting, and experimented with a variety of brushstroke techniques; McCubbin in particular used the small, contrasting blocks of strong colour that were a trademark of some Impressionist work. However, these artists should not be viewed as merely copying an international trend. Works of the Heidelberg school are generally viewed as some of the first Western art to realistically and sensitively depict the Australian landscape as it actually exists. Many earlier works look like European scenes and do not reflect the harsh sunlight, earthier colours, and distinctive vegetation of the land they painted.

Associated artists

Artists associated with the Heidelberg School include:[2]



Writing in 1980, Australian artist and scholar Ian Burn described the Heidelberg School as "mediating the relation to the bush of most people growing up in Australia. ... Perhaps no other local imagery is so much a part of an Australian consciousness and ideological make-up."[6] The movement was included in the Australian citizenship test, overseen by former prime minister John Howard in 2007. Such references to history were removed the following year, instead focusing on "the commitments in the pledge rather than being a general knowledge quiz about Australia."[7]

Many period films of the Australian New Wave drew upon the visual style and subject matter of the Heidelberg School.[8] For Picnic at Hanging Rock (1975), director Peter Weir studied the Heidelberg School as a basis for art direction, lighting, and composition.[9] Sunday Too Far Away (1975), set on an outback sheep station, pays homage to Roberts' shearing works, to the extent that Shearing the Rams is recreated within the film. When shooting the landscape in The Chant of Jimmie Blacksmith (1978), cinematographer Ian Baker tried to "make every shot a Tom Roberts".[10] The Getting of Wisdom (1977) and My Brilliant Career (1979) each found inspiration in the Heidelberg School;[8] outback scenes in the latter allude directly to works by Streeton, such as The Selector's Hut.[11]

The Heidelberg School is examined in One Summer Again, a three-part docudrama that first aired on ABC television in 1985. Tom Roberts' career, and his relationships with other members of the Heidelberg School, form the basis of the story. The artists' camps are recreated in authentic bush settings, which one critic described as having "the soft warmth of a McCubbin painting".[12] Film sets true to the period are contrasted with shots of contemporary Melbourne. The cast includes John Wood, Michele Fawdon, John Lee, Joan Sydney and Nina Landis.


See also


Further reading

External resources

  • In the Artist's Footsteps
  • Heidelberg Artists Trail
  • Heidelberg School - The Encyclopedia of Melbourne Online
  • Heidelberg School - Stories from Australia's Culture Portal
  • National Gallery of Victoria: Australian Impressionism Education Resource