“Any landscape is a condition of the spirit.” – Henri-Frédéric Amiel
The Australian landscape painter Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943) was a leading member of the Heidelberg school, the Australian version of impressionism, which became widespread in Australia in the last quarter of the 19th century. The artist, nicknamed, “Smike” was born at Mt. Duneed, near Geelong in Victoria on 8th April 1867. He showed a leaning towards art and an early aptitude for sketching. Moving to Melbourne, he became a lithographer’s apprentice, and while still in his teens he began studying at the National Gallery Art School.
When the painter Tom Roberts returned to Melbourne in 1885, the impressionist principles he brought back inspired a group of young artists. These artists became the Heidelberg School (named from the locale of the group’s principal painting camp, overlooking the river Yarra, near Melbourne – Heidelberg is now a Melbourne suburb). Streeton joined the group in 1886 and was deeply influenced by impressionism. But he saw the need to stress high-key tonal values in order to translate into paint “the blue of the Australian skies and the clear transparency of Australian distances”. His ideas took him on a brand new course and his canvasses inspired many an artist that worked in the Heidelberg School.
After the sale of one of his landscapes in 1888, Streeton decided to abandon lithography. His artistic skill matured quickly, and “Golden Summer” and “Still Glides the Stream” (both painted in 1888) are among his most notable paintings. In 1889 he and the Heidelberg group exhibited “9 × 5 Impressions” (paintings on the 9”x5” cigar-box lids) and the proceeds of the sales enabled Streeton to pursue his career. Much of his finest work was done in the next few years, such as the “Purple Noon’s Transparent Might” (1896) – an iconic Australian art work. This painting clearly shows the harsh light and brilliant colours that Streeton had to adapt the impressionist technique to in Australia.
In 1898 Streeton went to London. On his return to Melbourne in 1907 he had a successful exhibition with good sales. His “Australia Felix” dates from this year. A one-man show in Sydney and a second in Melbourne followed. Back in London, he had little difficulty in securing commissions. Nevertheless, the Paris Salon awarded him its Gold Medal in 1909.
Streeton joined the British army as a private in 1914. After being invalided out, early in 1918 he was commissioned by the Australian government as a war artist. After spending 2 years in Melbourne and then revisiting London, Streeton decided in 1923 to return permanently to Victoria. From his home in the picturesque hill country east of Melbourne, he continued to paint in his established manner. He was knighted in 1937 and died at Olinda, Victoria, on September 1, 1943.
Streeton was a pioneer of the heroic impressionism, the style which dominated the nation’s art for half a century, beginning in the 1880s. In settings of well-clothed rolling countryside, his paintings invested the continent’s fertile pastoral lands with a truly Arcadian grandeur. His contemporaries saw him as a true product of “the sun and soil of his land”, and he was acknowledged to be “a natural technician, with virtuosity and technical perfection including correct drawing and balanced design”.
The painting above from 1888 is “Early Summer - Gorse in Bloom” painted when the artist was 21 years old. It is presently exhibited in the Art Gallery of South Australia, and is a work in oils on canvas, 56.2 cm by 100.6 cm. It is typical of Streeton’s Australian impressionist landscapes, with the brilliance of the blue sky complemented by the yellow blooms of the gorse bushes. Common gorse is the most widely familiar species (Ulex europaeus) of this genus, and is the only species native to much of Western Europe. In many areas of North America (notably California and Oregon), southern South America, Australia, New Zealand and Hawai’i, the Common Gorse, introduced as an ornamental plant or hedge, has become naturalised and is a weed and invasive species due to its aggressive seed dispersal; it has proved very difficult to eradicate and detrimental in native habitats.
That gorse is a central part of this canvas is perhaps ironic, given Streeton’s commitment to creating an “Australian” art, seeing how the species is an introduced invasive plant. Perhaps, this is symbolic of the transplantation of French impressionism on Australian soil and its immense influence for many decades in the Australian art scene…