Listen to the curators speaking about Streeton’s key artworks and take a virtual visit of the exhibition.
Curator Wayne Tunnicliffe, head curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery and curator of the exhibition Streeton introduces the audio guide.
Take a self-guided virtual tour of the exhibition as you listen.
Hello and thank you for joining us on this tour of our exhibition Streeton. My name is Wayne Tunnicliffe and I’m the head curator of Australian art here at the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and the curator of this exhibition.
Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge the Gadigal people of the Eora nation, the traditional owners of the land on which we’re standing. I’d also like to acknowledge the traditional owners of all the sites on which Streeton painted and their elders past, present and emerging.
In this tour, my colleagues and I will take you through the exhibition. In each room, we stop at one of Arthur Streeton’s paintings for a look at how it’s made or the story it tells.
You’ll see how these artworks span extraordinary events – from economic boom to depression, the federation of Australia, the First World War, the Spanish flu pandemic, bushfires and bush recovery, and the beginning of the Second World War. Today, 100 years later, we too are experiencing unprecedented global events, and seeing Streeton’s art in these circumstances brings the past back to us at warp speed.
But through it all, Streeton’s sun-drenched impressionist landscapes from the 1880s, his joyful depictions of Sydney Harbour in the 1890s, and pastoral paintings from the 1920s and 30s continue to shape an image of our unique environment. He remains an important figure in the history of Australian art and his distinctive impressions of light, land and sea are among Australia’s most enduring and treasured paintings.
There are two reasons you should know about this painting. Firstly, it helped kick-start Streeton’s career, and secondly, it’s one of the earliest impressionist paintings made in Australia.
Streeton painted this work in 1888, a very important year for him. He turned 21, became a full-time artist, and began embracing the style of painting you see here, which was radically new in Australia.
The painting is called Early summer – gorse in bloom. The short shadows indicate the midday sun is at its height, illuminating the fields. The land has been cleared, likely for pasture, and parts of the ground are covered in brilliant yellow gorse shrubs. These flowers certainly look alluring, but they became one of the most pervasive weeds in Australia.
A single path cuts through the field, creating a dynamic diagonal across the canvas, from the fence post in the foreground to the curved horizon. A few figures (and a little lamb) are dotted along the path. Their tiny size gives a sense of scale and distance in this vast field, but there is no particular narrative in the painting. Instead, the emphasis is on the sensation of the place, the specific time of day and the season – early summer. It was the impression that mattered to Streeton.
Painted with fluid strokes of fresh blues, greens and golds, the painting exudes a crisp light. Such high-keyed colour and atmospheric light would come to define Australian impressionism, and you’ll see it echoed throughout the exhibition.
These small paintings were first hung on the walls of a Melbourne art gallery in 1889, alongside similar works by Streeton’s contemporaries. Little did the artists know this would become one of the most legendary exhibitions in Australia’s history.
The 9 x 5 Impression Exhibition was organised by Streeton and his friends Tom Roberts and Charles Conder. Its name simply came from the size of the pictures (they were all roughly 9 by 5 inches) and the idea that they were ‘impressions’, mostly of the Australian landscape – waterfronts, country lanes, city streets, manicured parks, even a football field.
In these works, details are described in the briefest of brushstrokes. And those brushstrokes are visible – thick and textured, or thin and brushy – sometimes letting the surface peek through. This outraged conservative critics, who dismissed them as mere sketches, unfinished and unfit for exhibition.
But the artists were proclaiming that their small landscapes – painted outdoors to capture the effects of light and atmosphere – were as valid as large-scale paintings of high-brow subjects. In fact, they were claiming these quick impressions were more honest to the artist’s perception of place. In doing so, they aligned themselves with the international impressionist art movement.
Now, if you stand back and gaze over the suite of pictures, you might notice that blues, pinks and purples dominate the colour scheme. Streeton was experimenting with painting at different times of day. And in works like Twilight, The dying day and Hoddle Street, 10pm, he was clearly intrigued by the languid beauty of dusk and the evening hours.
I’m Denise Mimmocchi, I’m the senior curator of Australian art.
In this early landscape, Streeton takes in a view of Victoria’s Yarra River flats from the hillside of Eaglemont near Heidelberg – lands of the Wurundjeri people. Today, Eaglemont is a residential suburb of Melbourne, but in Streeton’s time it was a country town and the surrounding rich floodplains were an important source of Victoria’s produce. In the summer of 1890, Streeton, Conder and Roberts camped at the Eaglemont Homestead, where they immersed themselves in nature and painted outdoors. Their distinctive paintings of the region earned them the name the ‘Heidelberg school’.
Streeton’s wide canvas takes in a panoramic view of the valley, abundant with life and natural beauty. From high on the grassy hillside, we look beyond some reddish gums and swooping magpies to the verdant flats below. There, cattle graze at the banks of a winding stream that disappears into a dense tract of forest. The hills beyond are tinged with the pink glow of dusk, as the moon rises on the horizon, above the hazy Dandenong Ranges.
Streeton was only 22 when he made this work – and the Art Gallery of New South Wales bought it right away. This marked the launch of Streeton’s career and the beginning of his Sydney story. It was also a serious sign of the art establishment supporting Australian impressionism.
The title of the work is ‘Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide’, which is a line from a William Wordsworth poem. Streeton was a poetry lover and, like Wordsworth and the Romantics, he recognised the enduring power of art. The stream at Eaglemont may no longer look like this, but it ‘glides forever’ here in Streeton’s majestic painting.
Still glides the stream is persistent in another way, too – the painting has hung on our walls continuously since it was purchased almost 130 years ago.
In June of 1890, after a summer of painting the golden lands near Heidelberg, Streeton arrived in Sydney. It was the first time he had left Victoria and the impact of a new environment transformed his work. This painting, From McMahon’s Point – fare one penny, is the most ambitious of his early responses to our waterside city.
Again, Streeton takes a high vantage point, looking down onto the harbour from above the ferry stop at McMahon’s Point. An old wooden ferry, puffing with smoke, pulls up to the wharf to collect a group of passengers. To its left, a few young boys in blue launch a rowboat from the beach. Gulls fly overhead and boats chug across the harbour in the sparkling sunshine. The green headland across the water is grassy Milson’s Point, where a lighthouse stands. Nowadays, it’s the spot where the Sydney Harbour Bridge meets the north shore.
What is most striking about this work is the overwhelming force of colour. A vast plane of ultramarine fills the middle of the painting with dazzling impact. No wonder, then, that the press began calling this shade ‘Streeton blue’.
The artist’s experiments with the changing effects of light and weather on the harbour – and the bustle of urban life around it – reflected the modern energy of late 19th-century Sydney. It was an energy that ignited Streeton’s artistic imagination. On his second visit in 1891, he wrote to Tom Roberts and declared ‘Sydney is an artist’s city – glorious ... a land of passion-fruit and poetry’.
Under an intensely blue, cloudless sky, a rocky hillside is dramatically lit by the midday sun. The place radiates with unrelenting heat. And something curious is happening at its centre.
Fire’s on is a defining painting in the history of Australian art. In many ways, it’s an unusual picture: the vertical format emphasises the dizzying height of the mountainside and hostility of the terrain.
Streeton was painting outdoors in the Blue Mountains, west of Sydney, where a railway tunnel was being cut through the mountains – workers blasting the rocks with dynamite feature in this painting. The artist was positioned up on the rocks with his paints and, hearing the warning call ‘Fire’s on!’, which meant that gelignite was about to explode, he ran for cover. When the blast was over and the smoke had cleared, he saw a body being carried out on a stretcher.
This is the drama he has portrayed in the lower right corner of the canvas – a plume of smoke still rising from the tunnel, the stretcher-bearers emerging from the dark into the glare of daylight, and fellow workers lined up to witness the sombre event.
Curiously, art critics didn’t mention the accident when the painting was first exhibited. Instead, they were struck by Streeton’s ability to so convincingly portray this distinctive heat, light and terrain. Streeton had expressed a drama altogether different to the incident in the railway tunnel: the uncompromising conditions of the Australian bush.
This painting, The spirit of the drought, is unusual among Streeton’s landscapes. In one sense, it is typical of the works that he had become known for by the 1890s – all glaring light and radiating heat – but it also presents a new kind of Australian allegory.
The figure of a nubile nymph, with a mask-like face and flaming yellow hair, hovers above the parched ground. Beneath her, bleached bones – human and animal – litter the ground. The woman is wrapped in a whirling veil of flames that threatens to ignite the world around her.
The spirit of the drought is one of a handful of experimental works Streeton made around 1895 related to Symbolism – an international movement in art and literature, originating in France. Symbolist artists and writers explored mystical and emotional ideas through allegory and mythology. They often used the archetype of a female temptress to embody a dark or threatening presence. Here, the femme fatale is an element of nature itself – she personifies the fire and drought that ravage the Australian bush.
Throughout his career, Streeton and his fellow Australian impressionists bore witness to the vulnerability of the Australian landscape in the face of fire and drought. They lived through some of the most extreme weather events on record – enduring dry spells and major floods. And here, Streeton tries to make sense of these unforgiving forces of nature by creating a unique, Australian mythology.
I’m Hannah Hutchinson, assistant curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Streeton painted this striking picture in Cairo in 1897. He called it Fatima Habiba, but it is unlikely that a particular Cairene woman would have sat for the painting. Like many Western artists of his generation who travelled to the Middle East, Streeton wouldn’t have been able to socialise or work with local women. In fact, a work like this is all about the distance between the foreign artist and his exoticised subject.
Fatima Habiba wears a black niqab – a full-body covering that reveals only the wearer’s eyes – which was worn by both Muslim and Coptic Christian women in Egypt in the 19th century. Her head and shoulders fill the length of the canvas, the line of her veil forming a stark black pyramid shape that contrasts with the chalky pink-and-white wall behind her. The geometry of the composition and the pared-back colour scheme make it unusual for Streeton – and surprisingly modern.
Looking more closely, you can notice the detail and decoration in her dress: the ridged brass ornament that covers her nose, the band of brilliant blue fabric across her forehead, and the delicate, scalloped edging of the black face veil that hides her mouth. Ever observant, Streeton has shown her headscarf slipping back to reveal a small area of brown hair peeking out at the top of her head.
In many ways, this painting fits into a Western tradition that stereotypes Middle Eastern women as exotic and mysterious – the kind of picture that would have been popular among Western tourists at the time. But Streeton has imbued his Orientalist fantasy with enough character to move it beyond cliché. Not quite meeting our gaze, Fatima glances out of the picture to her right. Her eyes sparkle and gently squint, as if she’s caught in a moment of laughter.
Streeton moved to London in 1897 and, aside from the odd business trip back to Australia, stayed there for 15 years. Like so many artists, writers and musicians, Streeton was attracted to London’s vibrant artistic scene and modern energy. He found it both thrilling and overwhelming. For the first time, he saw the art of the old masters and his European contemporaries first-hand. And, of course, his paintings were impacted by the distinctive light, atmosphere and weather of the northern hemisphere.
In this 1902 work, The centre of the Empire, Streeton captured one of London’s most famous landmarks, Trafalgar Square, early in the morning. To get the high viewpoint, he climbed to the top of St-Martin-in-the-Fields – the church in the north-east corner of the square.
In the foreground, carriages trundle along the wet road, which catches a glimmer of sunshine. Beyond them, the monuments of Trafalgar Square rise up from the shining ground. They are purple-grey silhouettes amongst the white fog, with the mighty Nelson’s column dominating the sky. This foggy dawn in the metropolis couldn’t be further from Streeton’s sun-drenched Australian pastorals of the 1880s and 90s. But as the French impressionist Claude Monet said, ‘Without the fog, London would not be a beautiful city.’
Although Monet visited London several times around the turn of the century, it seems that he and Streeton never met. But this painting has a few things in common with Monet’s own views of London – the square format and purple haze recall some of his famous paintings of the Houses of Parliament. And, like the French artist, Streeton was fascinated by the way a change in weather or time of day could completely transform the colour of a place. So, he created a second version of this exact composition in midday light. He thought these Trafalgar Square paintings were his best work in London to date.
My name is Nick Yelverton and I am an assistant curator of Australian art at the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Streeton spent almost a year back in Australia between 1906 and 1907 – and what a year it was! He mounted three hugely successful solo exhibitions and, with the extra income, finally married his love, the Canadian violinist Nora Clench.
This painting was the centrepiece of Streeton’s most successful exhibition. Staged in Melbourne in April 1907, it featured mainly works from his travels in Britain, France and Egypt. But there was also a small group of works painted on his return to Australia. When visitors entered the hall on Swanston Street, they encountered this large landscape hanging dramatically against the stage curtains. It’s called Australia Felix.
The sweeping panorama takes in a view of Victoria’s Mount Towrong and the surrounding valley, as viewed from high up on Mount Macedon. Streeton leads our eye past some speckled vegetation and a fallen tree in the foreground, down into a broad valley. The oat-coloured plains are punctuated with pale blue dams and the densely wooded mountain rises up to meet the distant horizon. The sky is cloudless, but the air is thick with haze or bushfire smoke. The muted mid-tones of green, bronze and grey convey both the heat of late summer and the vastness of the country.
The Latin title, Australia Felix, was borrowed from the colonial explorer Thomas Mitchell’s description of Victoria’s south-west. It means ‘happy’ or ‘lucky’ Australia and encapsulates the positive spirit many Australians felt at this time. After Federation in 1901, the country was enjoying great prosperity, confidence and a new sense of national pride. The title is also a good analogy for Streeton’s own success as he moved towards big, ambitious pastoral paintings like this one.
Venice. Queen of the Adriatic, the City of Bridges. The unique beauty and romance of the watery city has attracted painters for centuries. In Streeton’s time, artists from Whistler to Renoir to Monet were compelled to paint Venice time and again – and in 1908, Arthur Streeton followed in their footsteps.
Newly married, Streeton and wife Nora spent a month in Venice – painting, sightseeing and socialising with fellow artists in the Zettere district. Streeton captured all the major landmarks: the Doge’s Palace, the Rialto Bridge and – in this glittering painting – the Grand Canal that cuts through Venice in a big sweeping curve.
Streeton painted this view several times, from the top floor of one of Venice’s grand homes – the Palazzo Foscari. From this high vantage point, he could look right down the centre of the canal. The turquoise water is described in fresh, bright blues and greens, and dotted with elegant black gondolas. On the left, warm sunshine hits the cream facades that line the canal. To the right, the row of grand palaces with gothic-arched windows and Juliet balconies cast deep shadows across the water. The two sides of the canal converge in the middle distance, where we catch a glimpse of the Rialto Bridge. The skyline is a jumble of terracotta roofs, chimneys, bell towers and church domes.
When Streeton’s Venetian paintings were shown in London, critics praised his attention to detail and eye for atmosphere. The art critic for the London Observer wrote: ‘Mr Streeton has caught the opalescent glitter of the Venetian canals and marble palaces in moments of bright sunshine as few artists have done before him’.
This painting, Villers-Bretonneux, depicts the French battleground in the aftermath of the allied forces’ victory. And yet, there is no sense of triumph or commemoration. This is typical of Streeton’s World War I paintings, which focus more on the features of the landscape than on the victories or horrors of war.
Streeton became an official war artist in 1918 and was sent to the front, in France, in May. He was given a stipend of £2, plus £15 for equipment. In exchange, he was expected to produce 25 drawings and watercolours and at least one large-scale oil. Ever ambitious, Streeton vastly exceeded this with over 180 works, mostly watercolours and drawings, which he used later to work up more elaborate oil paintings.
This painting was made soon after the Australian Imperial Force’s famous victory at the Second Battle of Villers-Bretonneux. Australian soldiers had led a daring night raid to capture the town, which overlooked a crucial railhead at Amiens. Here, Streeton positions us on the ground, almost from a soldiers’ vantage point. In the foreground, mud and dirt are piled high either side of trenches that run across the breadth of the canvas. The rough earth is described in blocky, flat strokes of red-brown paint.
Beyond this, we look across the fields through which the Australians had advanced. On the distant hill, the town of Villers-Bretonneux quietly smoulders – a line of blackened, skeletal trees with just a few ruined buildings. The only figures visible are three stretcher bearers in the middle ground and – in the foreground, to the right – the legs of a dead soldier, which peek over the side of a trench.
Streeton returned to Sydney in 1920, after five years overseas. He was struck by the booming city’s growth, saying, ‘Every time I get back, Sydney looks finer ... Even with all the new buildings … I want to do one fine thing of Sydney … the point of view is the difficulty – the elevation’. To solve this problem, he got up onto the city’s highest rooftops to produce paintings like this – Town Hall and domes of the market. With its elongated format and focus on the skyline, it’s like a panoramic window into 1920s Sydney.
Some of the features of the skyline will be recognisable to Sydneysiders even today. On the left, we see the pointed clocktower of Town Hall rising above a cluster of low-lying buildings. On the right, the Queen Victoria Building dominates the horizon with its large, copper-green dome. Its many smaller domes, which run the length of the building, are just visible above the other rooftops. Between these two landmarks and in the foreground, a cluster of more humble buildings – offices, shops and flats – compete for our attention. The white facade of Murdoch’s department store gleams in the sunshine, its name emblazoned on the side, and a smoky, overcast sky tops off this vision of modernity.
The handsome, wide wooden frame is original – and it adds to the window-like effect of the painting, framing a glimpse of urban progress.
There’s a sense of timelessness in this magnificent sweeping scene.
Streeton presents us with a far-reaching view of Victorian pasture lands towards the Grampian mountain range. Only a few red gums remain across the cleared fields. A flock of sheep graze in the foreground, and behind them there’s a dam. From there, a windmill and a winding path lead our eye through the middle ground towards the imposing Mount William, rising in the distance.
Streeton found this view at the edge of his friend’s sheep farm and was so enthralled that he painted it three times in 1926. This is the largest and most ambitious of the three versions.
Streeton’s masterful use of tone gives the landscape its sense of depth. The misty, cool blues of the Grampians push them into the distance, whereas the high-keyed yellows and golds in the foreground thrust the fields closer to us. Notice how a large shadow, painted in rich browns and greens, moves in from the left of the canvas to frame the scene and provide a contrast to the bright, sunlit water.
The title, Land of the Golden Fleece, refers to the Greek myth of the Argonauts who travelled to the end of the world in search of a fleece made of gold. Streeton invoked the story to suggest Australia as a land of pastoral abundance. In his time (and beyond) Australia was said to be ‘riding on the sheep’s back’ – a phrase that expressed our economic reliance on the lucrative wool trade.
Land of the Golden Fleece captured the public’s imagination as an image of promise and plenty in the wake of the First World War. Today, it remains an important painting of Australian place and a marker of the complex ideologies of nationhood during that time.
Streeton painted very few still lifes in the earlier part of his career. But as he settled into family life in London with his wife Nora, he took more of an interest in this domestic subject matter. He sometimes included flowers picked from his own sumptuous garden, like the subject of this painting, Lilium auratum, also known as the golden-rayed lily.
Lilium auratum was painted around 1909. Standing out against a deep green background are two clusters of the spectacular white flowers with their distinctive yellow-striped petals and orange stamens. They stand in a small round brass pot, which reflects a golden glimmer of light. The painting, like the plant, is tall, but it seems to have been painted quickly, in broad, translucent strokes of paint.
If you look closely, you might see some areas of blue amongst the white flowers. This is a hint of a different painting that lies beneath the surface. Using X-ray scans, our conservation team have found a landscape painting – which was long thought to be lost – underneath the still life. Imagine turning the painting 90 degrees clockwise and you’d have the perfect format for one of Streeton’s panoramic vistas.
The hidden painting depicts the Gloucester Buckets ranges in New South Wales, which he had painted several times in 1893 and 1894. We don’t know why he chose to paint over the highly finished landscape 15 years later, but it wasn’t the only time he did this. Several of Streeton’s works in the Gallery’s collection have entirely different pictures hidden beneath their surfaces.
Throughout his life, Streeton marvelled at and celebrated Australia’s natural beauty. He championed its diversity and distinctiveness in colour and light. But by the time he was in his late 60s, he felt he had to fight for it.
This is a view of Sherbrooke Forest, located in Victoria’s Dandenong Ranges just outside Melbourne. Its traditional owners are the Wurundjeri people, who have lived in, and been sustained by, this land for millennia.
In 1934, the year this was painted, the future of the forest was in peril. Without designation as a national park, the government was about to give over 200,000 hectares of it to a paper mill.
Streeton, who owned a house nearby, created this work in response. He called it The vanishing forest.
In the foreground, we’re confronted by a felled tree – its hacked-off roots dramatically jutting out at us, spot-lit by the midday sun. To the right, a cluster of stark white trees stand tall, but are oddly bare and spindly. They’ve been ringbarked – a clearing method in which a deep ring is carved into the base of the tree, killing everything above it over time.
Descending down the hill into the ranges, we eventually find a shining blue body of water and the majestic Dandenong ranges, rising in the distance – an idyllic respite from the ravaged forest.
The Sherbrooke Forest was finally protected as a national park in 1987. It has regenerated as a lush ecosystem, alive with native animals, like the superb lyrebird. But the sense of impending loss – of the need to preserve our unique and fragile wilderness – has only become more urgent. In this past year alone, we’ve experienced drought, floods and extreme bushfires across the world. Streeton’s appeal for conservation, expressed in paintings like this, remains as relevant as it was 100 years ago.
01Streeton audio guide – introduction1 minute
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