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First exhibition in the UK to feature Australian Impressionists opens in London
John Russell, Rough Sea, Morestil, about 1900. Oil on canvas on hardboard, 66 x 81.8 cm. Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney. Purchased 1968 © AGNSW.

LONDON.- This will be the first exhibition in the UK to focus solely on Australian Impressionists, presenting 41 paintings including important masterpieces never previously shown in the UK. For the first time at the National Gallery, visitors will have the opportunity to discover the impact of European Impressionism on Australian painting of the 1880s and 1890s, and explore how the art that emerged was both referencing the work of the European masters and yet was distinct from it.

The exhibition focuses on four major Australian Impressionists: Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton (1867–1943), Charles Conder (1868–1909), and John Russell (1858–1930) and will show how their work epitomised a growing sense of national identity as Australia approached Federation in 1901.

All of the artists featured in the exhibition either studied or worked in Europe at different stages of their careers. Inspired by their counterparts active in Europe, such as Monet, and Whistler (1834–1903), the Australian Impressionists painted en plein air; their works displaying a preoccupation with the effects of light and colour, using bold and experimental techniques to depict scenes of daily life.

Australia’s Impressionists is organised in three sections, each exploring the artists’ working relationships and respective styles, as well as their proximity to, or distance from, the European tradition.

Urban Australia and the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition
The first section is based on the landmark 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition held in 1889 in Melbourne. Organised by the three major figures of the so-called ‘Heidelberg School’ (later known as the Australian Impressionists) – Tom Roberts, Charles Conder, and Arthur Streeton – it is regarded as one of the most significant art exhibitions ever to have been mounted in Australia. The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition introduced Melbourne society to a distinctly Australian version of Impressionism with some one hundred and eighty ‘impressions’ or oil sketches, many of which were painted on panels of 9 x 5 inches made out of cigar box lids. This section of the exhibition also features a number of iconic paintings of the rapidly changing cityscapes of Mebourne and Sydney, introducing late-19th century Australian society as one that was highly urbanised.

National Landscape
Australian Impressionism hit its stride around 1888 at the time of the centenary of the European settlement of the Australian continent. With a growing sense of national identity came a desire to authentically represent the great Australian landscape and in particular, the light. The practice of painting en plein air, which Roberts had embraced while travelling in Europe in the early 1880s, provided the basis for this new school of painting. Scenes of daily life at Sydney Harbour are recorded with a vibrant sense of excitement and pride, while scenes of the bush are elevated to a mode of heroic myth.

A highlight painting in this section is Streeton’s Fire’s On (Art Gallery of New South Wales) from 1891, which shows the construction of the Lapstone Tunnel through the Blue Mountains near Sydney, and vividly depicts the moment when a young navvy was killed by a blast just a few yards away from Streeton. Resilience in the face of the sometimes harsh and unforgiving Australian environment became a recurrent theme.

John Russell
John Russell was born and died in Sydney, but spent 40 years as an expatriate in Europe, closely connected to the avant-garde. Russell first enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1881 under French artist and professor Alphonse Legros before continuing his studies in Paris alongside Toulouse-Lautrec and Van Gogh. He travelled to Spain with Roberts in 1883, painting en plein air, but unlike Roberts, Russell settled in Europe on the island of Belle-Île-en-Mer, off the coast of Brittany, where he observed Monet painting and where he also met and mentored the young Matisse.

He returned to the Antipodes in the early 1920s, eventually settling in Sydney in 1924. This section explores the work of a painter who, despite his connections to some of the most important artists of his time, rarely exhibited and was only rediscovered as ‘Australia’s lost Impressionist’ in the second half of the 20th century.

The inspiration for Australia’s Impressionists came as the result of the National Gallery receiving the long-term loan of Blue Pacific (1890, Private collection) by Arthur Streeton in 2015. This was the first painting by an Australian artist to be displayed at the National Gallery and the exhibition will further introduce visitors to the artistic movement to which it belongs.

Christopher Riopelle, National Gallery Curator of Post-1800 Paintings said: "Australia’s Impressionist painters were doing more than just recording familiar visual phenomena. They were actually inventing a way for Australians to see this vast and various land, its suddenly teeming cities, and the abrupt new intersections of nature and the man-made. That is what makes the subject so exciting, especially for British and other European viewers; they witness Australians using oil painting to come to visual terms with a continent so endlessly different from their own."

National Gallery Director, Gabriele Finaldi said: "Australian painters at the end of the 19th century were deeply interested in how the language of contemporary European Impressionism could be adapted to the Australian landscape and Australian subject matter. The process produced some striking and original results. This will be the first time an exhibition devoted to Australian painting can be seen in the National Gallery."

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