Defining moments in Australian history: The 9 by 5 Impressions exhibition


August 31, 2022

1889: A national Australian art movement emerges.

In the 1880s, Australians were the wealthiest people in the world per capita. Gold had brought money and ideas to Melbourne’s population, which swelled from 268,000 to 473,000 between 1881 and 1891. The English journalist George Sala, who was visiting, described the up-and-coming metropolis as “wonderful Melbourne”. Nationalism rose and people craved stories and images that reflected a new identity.

This led to a strong appreciation of the arts, which led to the establishment of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1861. The gallery’s art school was founded in 1867 and became the most important training center for young artists in the colony. The school’s first master painter was the Austrian emigrant Eugene von Guérard, and early students included Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. Roberts had moved to Melbourne with his family from England in 1869 at the age of 13. As a teenager, he worked as a photographer’s assistant by day while studying art by night, and in 1874 began teaching at art school. After his studies he was encouraged to train abroad and the school awarded him a travel grant. He painted in Europe between 1881 and 1885 and while touring through Spain in 1883 he met the artists Ramon Casas and Laureà Barrau, who introduced him to Impressionism, the new and exciting art movement that was then sweeping the world.

Beginning in France and spreading across Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, Impressionism focused on quickly rendering the ephemeral light and color of a scene. Fast, loose brushstrokes and painting were used outdoors (exterior) was an important feature. Outdoor sketching had been popular since the 17th century, but artists typically used the sketches as studies that formed the basis of studio work. On his return to Australia in 1885, Roberts wanted to pass his new approach and knowledge on to his colleagues in Melbourne. In late 1885 a core group of artists established the first artists’ camp at Box Hill on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, where they painted Impressionist pieces outdoors. Another camp was later set up in the north-east suburb of Heidelberg, and the artists also painted in the coastal suburbs of Melbourne. Her art was also influenced by Naturalism, another school of European art that focused on the reality of everyday life rather than a romanticized image of it.

The same year the camp began, Roberts met Streeton while painting near Mentone on Melbourne Bay. By this time Streeton had graduated from Victoria’s Art School and was working as a lithographer on Collins Street.

Roberts described Streeton’s paintings as “full of light and air” and invited him to artist camp. Like Streeton, Conder worked as a lithographer in the 1880s. Moving to Melbourne from Sydney in 1888, he soon began painting with the Open Air Group at Box Hill and Heidelberg. Roberts, Conder and Streeton held an exhibition of their work at Buxton’s Rooms on Swanston Street and called it the 9 times 5 impression exhibition for most of the works were painted on 9″ x 5″ wooden boards, many of which were cigar box lids. Because of the size, the paintings could be made accessible to the general public. It was Australia’s first major exhibition of Impressionist paintings and was carefully planned, marketed and presented.

It opened on August 17, 1889, and featured 183 works, mostly by Roberts, Conder, and Streeton. Subjects ranged from idyllic landscapes surrounding Melbourne’s rural outskirts to atmospheric cityscapes, figurative works and crowd scenes. Particular attention was paid to the presentation of the paintings; They were mounted in simple wooden frames rather than the more usual gilded frames, and the room was adorned with silk cloths and curtains, Japanese umbrellas, folding screens and vases. This production was inspired by the fashionable aesthetic movement, which focused on elegant, simple design with oriental influences.

The exhibition drew huge crowds, but press coverage ranged from curious to condemning, and the Victorian Art Institute was unenthusiastic. That was what Australia’s best-known art critic at the time, James Smith, said in the Melbourne daily That argus, “Of the 180 exhibits … about four-fifths hurt the eye.” Despite this, more than 80 paintings had been sold by the end of the exhibition and the rest were auctioned after it was over. The show was a resounding financial success for the artists. Roberts, Conder and Streeton later became key figures in Australian art as they were founding members of what American art critic Sidney Dickinson called the Heidelberg School in 1891, the first truly Australian art movement.

The 9 by 5 Impressions exhibition is part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project.

Related: Defining moments in Australian history: Eureka Stockade

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