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Tom Roberts The golden fleece 1894

Tom Roberts

England, Australia 1856–1931
Roberts produced some of the most memorable images in Australian art, in a career that encompassed portrait, landscape, figure and narrative painting. After training in Australia and overseas, he became a galvanising influence on local artists. He introduced the plein-air approach to painting, helped to establish the ‘artist camps’ around Melbourne and was a key figure in the Heidelberg school.

Bought by the Gallery in the year it was painted, The golden fleece was the first painting by Roberts to enter a public collection.

The golden fleece 1894

Roberts painted this iconic artwork while staying at Newstead Station in northern New South Wales. Originally called Shearing at Newstead, it was renamed in tribute to the wool industry, which was, according to Roberts, ‘a subject noble enough and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit – of strong, masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year’s growth is being stripped from them for man’s use, and the great human interest of the whole scene’.

The title references the Greek myth in which Jason and the Argonauts set out on a heroic quest to claim the prized pelt of a golden ram.

People and places

Australia is the world’s leading producer and exporter of wool. Pastoralists were among the first free settlers to arrive in Australia from Britain and a wool export industry to the UK started in the early 1800s. Wool soon became one of our main industries, and Australia was said to have ‘ridden the sheep’s back’ to prosperity, particularly after mechanisation was introduced in the mid to late 1800s. The character of the shearer played a central role in defining Australian identity, and events such as the shearers strike of 1891 (which was violently repressed) shaped our political landscape and led to the creation of the Labor Party.