“Rest not. Life is sweeping by; go and dare before you die. Something mighty and sublime, leave behind to conquer time.” – Johann Wolfgang von Goethe
Whenever I visit another city I try and make some time to also visit the gallery there. We are very lucky in Australia, as each state capital has a magnificent state gallery, which is well run, has some wonderful art works in its permanent collection and periodically hosts visiting exhibitions. The Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth is no exception and for Art Sunday today I am highlighting a painting from its collection. It is Eugene von Guérard’s, “Fern Tree Gully, Cape Otway Ranges”, painted around 1870.
Eugene von Guérard was born in Vienna in 1811. He was the son of the court painter to Emperor Franz Joseph I of Austria, Bernard von Guérard, and became a painter himself, studying under Johann Schirmer at the Academy in Düsseldorf. He also travelled extensively on the continent and spent some years in Italy before coming to Australia in 1852, lured by the discovery of gold on the Victorian goldfields around Ballarat, and hoping to make his fortune by prospecting for the precious metal.
After a year of unsuccessful prospecting, he resumed his painting career in Melbourne in 1854, and by 1870 was appointed First Master of Painting at the National Gallery School, Melbourne and Curator of the National Gallery of Victoria. He received commissions for landscapes and studies of pastoral properties. He quickly became respected for the meticulous accuracy and fine scientific detail of his landscapes. He returned to Europe in 1882.
This work of Eugene von Guérard encapsulates the application of European artistic traditions (especially German Romanticism), and the “sublime movement” to the Australian landscape. It is also an example of the series of works that show this the artist as a recorder of the approach of European settlement. Eugene von Guérard’s training was imbued with the philosophy of the German Romantics epitomized by the work and teachings of Caspar David Friedrich. Landscape painting, for Friedrich, was an intermediary between man and God, a way of expressing the spirituality of the land as well as humanity’s place in it. In line with this, Von Guérard’s training at the Düsseldorf Academy focussed on the intensive study of the elements of nature in order to know nature as a physical reality and spiritual truth. Nature was a living organism with cycles of life and death that were part of God’s grand design.
The sublime movement found expression through the work of European artists like Salvator Rosa and de Loutherbourg who wished to portray the magnitude and awe-inspiring strength of nature as God’s ultimate creation. Artists interested in representing the sublime through the Australian environment often decried the lack of dramatic landforms such as tall mountains, deep gorges, waterfalls and rushing torrents, as exist in the USA, for example. However, the English philosopher Edmund Burke advocated that silence and stillness could also encapsulate the sublime. von Guérard tried to capture the sublime moment though expressions of stillness, silence and transcendence.
God in nature could also be expressed in the symmetry of natural forms like rock faces and the arches formed by trees that often frame von Guérard’s compositions. To further reinforce the cyclical nature of the world, his compositions are frequently circular, moving from a central focus of interest, through other elements towards the infinity of the view back to the focal point. “Fern Tree Gully, Cape Otway Ranges” typifies this approach, the eye moves from the human element framed by a canopy of ferns and trees towards the peak in the middle of the picture and the unfolding Otway Ranges in the distance.
In the mid nineteenth century Victorian Britain had a craze for ferns. Houses were decorated with fern plants and motifs, special botanical gardens were established and artists incorporated fern elements in paintings, china, furniture and fabrics. This craze was transferred to Australia and as the hinterland was explored, new ferns found their way into domestic gardens and houses. The well-to-do had special “ferneries” built in their gardens where a variety of native ferns were cultivated.
Eugene von Guérard reflected this fashion in 1857 when he exhibited a painting of a fern tree gully in Melbourne’s Dandenong Ranges. That work is now in the National Gallery of Australia collection. The painting above “Fern Tree Gully, Cape Otway Ranges” is a companion piece and was completed after visits to Victoria’s Otway Ranges in October 1859 and April 1862 when von Guérard went on an expedition with the scientist Professor von Neumayer and fellow artist, Nicholas Chevalier. Von Guérard made numerous sketches of the wild and impenetrable forest area, these drawings are now in the Dixson Galleries in Sydney.