Archive for November 11th, 2013

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Ex Depicting everyday life

The search for appropriate pictures for this exercise has overtaken the exercise itself.

“Choose two Impressionist images that most people would recognise – the sort of images that appear on calendars and souvenirs in museum shops. Are these simply attractive images or do they tell you something more about contemporary life, especially city life?” is how the requirements begin. Manet’s Bar at the Folies-Bergères is suggested and the actual illustration in the notes is Renior’s Ball at the Moulin de la Galette.

The Manet painting is at The Courtauld Gallery in London – The Renoir is in the Musée d’Orsay in Paris (link). I’ve been working hard in this course to select works that I could see in person. There are beginning to be some wonderfully detailed photographs of artwork available on the internet, but it’s just not the same. I haven’t been able to locate any paintings by Manet or Renior on public view in Sydney (the NSW Art Gallery (AGNSW) has a couple of prints). I’m going to spend a few days at the National Gallery of Australia (NGA) in Canberra soon – where they have some prints. The NGA and AGNSW both have works by other French Impressionists, but none involving city life and I’d suggest none of the stature of the works suggested by OCA.

Time to step back and reconsider the question. The textbook and the course consider only French painters in the discussion on Impressionism, apart from a fleeting mention of Whistler in the discussion of Japonisme. Why? Is it simply a matter of space, to enable a clean, logical progression in presenting a condensed History of Art? Was there something extraordinary happening, somehow self-limited to national boundaries? Is it convention and convenience? A form of snobbery?

A quick search found a page on American Impressionism on the Metropolitan Museum of Art website ( The essay included there suggests that initially, in the 1870s, most American painters in Paris were repelled by the impressionist innovations. Gradually as impressionism “lost its radical edge” it attracted more and more American painters and collectors (Weinberg, 2004). The images used to illustrate the article include works painted in France and in America.

Closer to home, it has been written that “The Impressionist Movement did not reach Australia in its pure form… To investigate the school of Australian Impressionism, is to investigate what happens to a technical method and approach to painting – and Impressionism was no less – evolved in one country, when it comes in contact with a new environment and another set of social conditions” (Smith, 1945). Could any of these Australian works fit the exercise brief? Are they derivative rather than innovative? Is the “impressionism” a surface decorative style rather than a more substantial understanding of the same concerns? If as suggested by the assignment question impressionist paintings “tell you something more about contemporary life, especially city life”, what could that mean in an Australian context?

The Chateau d'Antibes Claude Monet 1888 oil on canvas Private collection; displayd at Art Gallery NSW

The Chateau d’Antibes
Claude Monet
1888 oil on canvas
Private collection; displayed at Art Gallery NSW

What are some characteristics of (French) Impressionism?
* breaking away from the academic painting of the past (“academic” as taught in State-funded academies and approved by authorities.)
* subjects landscapes or contemporary middle-class life (not the historical, mythological or narrative themes of the past).
* painted what was in front of them – invent nothing, although showing the perception, individuality and sincerity of the artist.
Detail of

Detail of The Chateau d’Antibes
Claude Monet

* for Monet, “light and atmosphere are the subject” (Honour and Fleming, p. 704).
* varied, looser brushwork – broken lines and patches of colour, rough handling, uneven thickness, using the end of the brush… (not the high finish of academic work).
* pure spectrum colours, not mixed on the palette.
* lighter, high-key palette.
* canvas primed in white or a light colour
* often plein air
* immediacy, spontaneity
* absorbing influence of “alien” cultures, especially Japanese prints.

There isn’t a definitive list or “look”. There was a lot of variation between different artists, and in the work of a single artist over time. There are contradictions within the list (for example objective, but through the senses of the artist), and in practical application. There was a desire to capture “the truth of the first immediate impression” (Honour and Fleming, p. 703), but while some of Monet’s works were painted in a single sitting, in many he elaborated the surface over multiple sessions, densely working some areas, layering brushstrokes, editing and refining (see Shackelford, 2008).

A final characteristic, which I’m only taking early steps in understanding: Monet was searching for a way to solve the “problem… of how to combine and reconcile pictorial three-dimensional illusionism with the flat painted surface as a field for invention” (Honour and Fleming, p. 713). In a talk on Manet’s A Bar at the Folies-Bergère Philip Pullman explains that in this period artists became interested in the nature of depictions itself – art was “self-conscious” and “the painted surface is as important as the subject”. Near the end of his talk Pullman posits that there is no progression in art. All great art has a “double character”, making a likeness of some kind and exploring the nature of making that image – how a pattern is created, or aerial perspective, or molding with shadows and highlights or the sensual pleasure of applying pigment (see Pullman, 2009). It seems that together with the checklist of characteristics above there is an extra something with the “original” (my word) Impressionists – something of innovation and exploration and risk-taking and integrity.

Although I’ve decided to look locally for subjects for this exercise, Pullman’s talk is highly relevant to the original requirements. Manet’s work does show a lot about contemporary life (I’d never noticed those legs of the trapeze artist top left before). However Pullman shows that the oddities in the painting – the “reflection” that is ambiguous and when analysed doesn’t quite work – make the image more than a simple depiction of what was in front of the artist. It poses questions about the nature of reality – which is the real girl, what is the real transaction?

After that long introduction, can I find available to view in Sydney works that at least roughly fits the brief of the exercise? (with standard apologies about the quality of my photographs). The Monet above doesn’t meet criteria of being particularly well known and urban.

Mon ami 'Polite John Peter Russell oil on canvas   1900

Mon ami ‘Polite
John Peter Russell
oil on canvas 1900

This painting by John Peter Russell also misses the same criteria. Even while rejecting it for this exercise, I’ve included it here because Russell is one link between (French) Impressionism and Australia. It has been suggested that “if we accept a rigorous definition of Impressionist style and colour, the only Australian who rightfully qualifies to be designated an Impressionist is John Russell” (Vaughn, 2007. p. 16). Russell met Vincent van Gogh at art school and maintained a correspondence with him until the latter’s death. Living for many years on Belle Ile in Brittany, Russell met Monet there and had the opportunity to watch him (Monet) at work (see Galbally, 2008).

An autumn morning, Milson's Point, Sydney Tom Roberts oil on canvas 1888

An autumn morning, Milson’s Point, Sydney
Tom Roberts
oil on canvas 1888

This next painting is by Tom Roberts, whose visit to Europe in the early 1880s included a painting trip with Russell and others to Spain. Back in Australia, Roberts was one of a small group of artists who deliberately set out to introduce Impressionism to local audiences with the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition of 1889. In the context of this OCA exercise topic, it is important to note that the exhibition “reflected the artists’ awareness of international art and artists, and a desire for their work to be seen in that broader context” (National Gallery of Victoria, [n.d.]).

Detail of

Detail of An autumn morning, Milson’s Point, Sydney
Tom Roberts

This work of Robert’s from the previous year was included in the NGV Australia Australian Impressionism exhibition of 2007. It doesn’t have the spectrum colour from list of characteristic above – admittedly the photograph doesn’t help, not picking up the touches of red throughout the painting, or the unifying coppery glow. Possibly this shows a stronger influence from Whistler’s works. It is an urban scene, and although not a interior filled with figures tells about the experience of an Australian city of the time. There is the bustling port, the smog of progress, more people to be found than you see at first glance, and that most distinctive part of Sydney, the waters of the harbour. The picture has been described as “a hymn of praise to the energy, enterprise and progress of the modern city” (Astbury, 1989. p. 34).

Another painting that I would like to show is actually in London at the moment at the moment at the Royal Academy of Arts – Departure of the Orient – Circular Quay by Charles Condor, another of the exhibitors in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition ( (see Apart from being a personal favourite, this painting has a specific Australian flavour to its urban scene, showing a mail ship.

The railway station, Redfern Arthur Streeton

The railway station, Redfern
Arthur Streeton
1893 oil on canvas

Detail of

Detail of The railway station, Redfern
Arthur Streeton

Arthur Streeton was the third major figure in the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. This scene seems to me more “impressionistic” than that of Robert’s above, in the sense of appearing spontaneous and immediate. It is also lighter-keyed, with some pure spectrum colour although overall more tonal. Astbury (1989, p. 124) suggests that “Streeton chose not to emphasise the movement and activity characteristic of the area but to concentrate instead on the play of light and atmosphere”, which links back to Monet’s focus in the list of characteristics above.

The signage at the NSW Art Gallery includes “Streeton’s choice of modern railway subject matter and his evocative approach were influenced by French and British impressionism as well as the decorative, asymmetrical design and flattened picture plane of Japanese woodcuts”. Looking closer I think this is a good example of an Australian approach mentioned by Vaughan: “The Australian painters saw themselves as Impressionists of tonal effects, often using a square-headed brush which produced sharp-edged areas of tonal colour, rather than adopting the fractured brushwork and extreme chromatic experimentation of mainstream French Impressionism” (Vaughan, 2007. p. 19).

However although urban, I would say these works of Roberts, Condor and Streeton are not the “Australian impressionist” paintings that most people would recognise.

Bailed up Tom Roberts 1895 oil on canvas

Bailed up
Tom Roberts
1895 oil on canvas

This is regarded by the Art Gallery NSW as a highlight of its collection. It was largely painted en plein air and is high-keyed. However it was not spontaneous nor contemporary. It was staged. A special platform was built to provide the high vantage point. The scene was based on an event that occurred 30 years earlier – history painting! The important thing is that it was Australian history, in an unmistakably Australian “tranquil, sun-drenched landscape” (Astbury, 1989, p. 124).

I recently posted about a new TV series on Australian art – see The second half of the first episode is devoted to the Australian impressionists. A couple of key quotes: “[They] took Impressionism, the defining art movement of their time, and made it distinctively Australian”. “Finally Australia had artists who found the harsh light, the strange trees, and the parched land beautiful, because they were painting a place they considered home”. (Capon, 2013)

1888 was the centenary of white settlement in Australia. There was a surge of nationalist sentiment leading up to Federation 1st January 1901. One national characteristic was a level of larrikinism, irreverence towards the law and support for the underdog – making a stage hold up a sympathetic theme.

The Golden Fleece Tom Roberts 1894   oil on canvas

The Golden Fleece
Tom Roberts
1894 oil on canvas

Another painting by Roberts, one of a series, celebrates rural life, mateship and the nobility of hard work. I particularly like this version because of the space given to the land outside, harsh but bountiful.

“The bush” and “outback” are very important themes in the Australian identity, and in this period the “distinctive light and texture of the Australian bush” (Lane, 2007, p.14) was certainly celebrated by the Australian impressionists – but we are primarily an urban nation. A classic urban scene in Paris may be a questionable transaction in a nightclub. For me as a Sydney-sider the classic urban scene is a blue sky, some bush and sandstone, some buildings and boats, and the many colours of the harbour.

From my camp (Sirius Cove) Arthur Streeton 1896   oil on plywood

From my camp (Sirius Cove)
Arthur Streeton
1896 oil on plywood

For a time Streeton, Roberts and others set up a camp by the harbour in Sydney, living under canvas, commuting by boat, and apparently furnished with a piano. From my camp (Sirius Cove) for me fits the exercise brief of an impressionist painting that is very well known, an attractive image, and also tells more about contemporary life. The colour (follow the link to the Art Gallery site for a better version), the brushwork and the spontaneity are all there. In addition it shows the beauties of nature embedded in the city.

Have I fulfilled the requirements of the course exercise? Certainly some of the Australian works shown above would be very familiar to Australian audiences and can be viewed as “a part of Australian cultural identity, the local equivalents of, say, … Renoir’s Moulin de la Galette…” (Hansen, 2007, p. 681). They all show many of the characteristics of Impressionist painting, albeit with variations. They also played a part in the emergence of a distinctive Australian voice and identity, and so, I suggest, entirely appropriate selections by an Australian student of the history of western art.


Astbury, L. (1989) Sunlight and shadow: Australian impressionist painters 1880 – 1900. Sydney: Bay Books

Capon, E. (2013) The Art of Australia Television series produced by Serendipity Productions and Wall to Wall Media. [Online] Available from (Accessed 10-Nov-2013)

Galbally, A. (2008) A remarkable friendship: Vincent van Gogh and John Peter Russell. Victoria: The Miegunyah Press

Hansen, D. (2007) “National Naturalism” In Lane, T. (2007) Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

Honour, H. and Fleming, J. (2009) A World History of Art (revised 7th edition). London: Laurence King.

Lane, T. (2007) Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

National Gallery of Victoria ([n.d.]) 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition [online] Available from (Accessed 10-Nov-2013)

Pullman, P. (2009) talk on A Bar at the Folies-Bergère. Recorded as part of Picture This at Somerset House – Writers’ talks in the Courtauld Gallery. [online] Available from (Accessed 9-Nov-2013)

Shackelford, GTM (2008) “Monet’s Technique” In Shackelford, GTM Monet and the Impressionists. Sydney: Art Gallery of NSW.

Smith, B. (1945) Place, taste and tradition: A study of Australian art since 1788. Sydney : Ure Smith. Cited in Lane, T. (2007) Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria (p. 18).

Vaughn, G. (2007) “Some reflections on defining Australian Impressionism” In Lane, T. (2007) Australian Impressionism. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.

Weinberg, H. Barbara. (2004) “American Impressionism”. In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. [online] Available from (Accessed 9-Nov-2013)

UA1-WA:P2-p4-Ex Depicting everyday life
Understanding Art 1 – Western Art.
Part two: From the High Renaissance to Post-Impressionism
Project four: Impressionism and post-impressionism
Exercise: Depicting everyday life


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November 2013

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