Australian Fine Arts

The first published European depiction of Australian fauna occurred as early as 1593, when Speculum Orbis Terrae, a Latin geography of the known world, depicted a kangaroo on the tide page. Throughout the seventeenth and eighteenth centuries the Dutch, recording the topography of the coast of Western Australia, illustrated books with images of ‘New Holland’. When William Dampier’s famous books on his voyages were published in England in 1697 they included drawings of birds and fish. This tradition continued with the arrival, exploration and settlement of the east coast. Both French and English publishers were eager to show their readers images of the new continent, its inhabitants and its fauna and flora. Artists accompanied journeys of exploration, and both military officers and convicts were eager to draw and paint the new land. Prominent among these artists were John Glover, who lived and worked in Tasmania, and Conrad Martens, who painted superb watercolors of Sydney Harbor. 

The studio of Brett Whiteley (1939-92), as it was at his death. Whiteley won the Archibald Prize in 1976 and 1978, the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1977, 1978 and 1984, and the Sulman Prize in 1978.

The discovery of gold in the middle of the nineteenth century was vital for the development of art in Australia. The wealth of the goldfields attracted vast numbers of people to Australia, including a number of distinguished artists. The most famous of these was Samuel Thomas Gill, whose sketches of life on the diggings are still admired, George Rowe, who became famous for his panoramas, Eugene von Guerard, Nicholas Chevalier and Louis Buvelot.

Lionel Lindsay (1874-1961), brother of Norman, was an art critic as well as a watercolor painter and graphic artist in pen, etching and woodcut. This magazine cover is from 1913.

The chain of wealth which generated art on the goldfields led to the establishment of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1861. In the next two decades, other states, eager to keep up with Victoria, built their own galleries: the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery (1863), the Art Gallery of New South Wales (1874), the Art Gallery of South Australia (1879), the Art Gallery of Western Australia and the Queensland Art Gallery (both in 1895).

Towards the end of the century a small group of artists who became known as the Heidelberg School changed the face of Australian painting forever by establishing a new ‘way of seeing’ the Australian landscape in all its different light, color and forms. Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin set up an artists’ camp at Box Hill, near Melbourne, and painted ‘from life’, emphasizing the local palette, which included both the dazzling blues and gold which are so often seen in Roberts’ landscapes and the more subdued greys and greens of McCubbin’s bush themes. They emulated the French Impressionists’ methods of capturing the moment, but chose national themes. They were later joined by others, among them Charles Condor, Arthur Streeton and Louis Abrahams. While some artists portrayed idyllic landscapes and heroic workers (Shearing the Rams, by Tom Roberts, is one example of this), others showed a continuing anxiety about their place in a country still strange and sometimes hostile; this is evident in their titles (such as McCubbin’s The Lost Child, Down on his Luck and Bush Burial).

Around this time Australia also developed a fascination with sketching, etching and black and white newspaper and magazine illustration. The rise of the Bulletin and Smith’s Weekly, and the publication of the Picturesque Atlas of Australasia (all of which used etchings and sketches) saw artists such as David Low, Norman and Lionel Lindsay, Julian Ashton, Will Dyson and Phil May all establishing another great Australian art tradition.

‘Fossicking’, a lithograph from Victoria Gold Diggings and Diggers as They Are (1852), by S. T. Gill (1818-80). Gill came to Australia as a young man, and always worked as an artist. He is best known for his goldflelds work, but he also accompanied an expedition to Spencers Gulf, and did a deal of work depicting city life in Melbourne.

With the arrival of the twentieth century it was clear that while artists’ subject matter would be uniquely Australian, fashionable techniques-be they Modernism, Impressionism, or Abstract expressionism would be borrowed from overseas.

By World War II Australia was awash with a new generation of immensely talented artists: the remarkable and controversial modernist portrait painter William Dobell; Donald Friend, who was much influenced by Asian art through time he spent living in Bali; Sidney Nolan, whose most famous series of images was of Australian icon Ned Kelly; Albert Tucker, who built his reputation redefining the way we look at the continent, particularly the desert; John Passmore, who loved and recorded the intense beauty of Sydney Harbor in his Cezanne-influenced works; Russell Drysdale, perhaps the quintessential painter of the outback; John Perceval, with his strange, dark visions of the land; Arthur Boyd, whose love affair with the Australian landscape found its finest flowering at his home, ‘Bundanon’, near Nowra on the NSW south coast; Lloyd Rees, with his evocative and dreamy land and seascapes; Clifton Pugh, whose painting of Gough Whitlam is still the finest portrait ever painted of an Australian prime minister; John Brack, whose haunting painting of workers in Collins Street, Melbourne, is one of the nation’s iconic suburban images; Charles Blackman, who achieved fame with his naive Alice in Wonderland like images; and Fred Williams who, with his lyrical love of the bush, bridged the gap between older artists such as Tom Roberts and more contemporary visions of landscape.

In many ways the influences some of these artists brought back to Australia from overseas revolutionized the way Australians saw their own country, their own landscape.

In the image above: Artist William Dobell 

(1899-1970). Dobell studied and worked overseas for many years, returning to Australia in 1938. He is perhaps best remembered for his portrait of Joshua Smith, which won the Archibald Prize in 1944 and was then challenged in court on the grounds that it was caricature rather than portraiture.

Today, art is very much alive and well in Australia. At the popular end of the scale are artists such as Ken Done, whose bright and breezy images of Sydney and Australia cleverly hover between Modernism and advertising, Tim Storrier, who has achieved great success with a hyper realistic style, and Martin Sharp, once a cartoonist for Oz magazine, who progressed to designing covers for 1960s’ rock bands and then started to pursue his lifetime fascination with Tiny Tim and Sydney’s Luna Park.

The late Brett Whiteley, whose works cover a broad range of functions and styles, from the Dire Straits’ Brothers in Arms album cover to huge canvasses-now to be found in most of the country’s major galleries-has been so successful that there is now a permanent gallery to his memory in Sydney. Cartoonist/portraitist Bill Leak regularly wins the People’s Choice award are the Archibald Prize for portraiture and is a powerful political cartoonist with The Australian newspaper.

In the image above: Artist Arthur Boyd

 (1920-99), perhaps the best-known member of the Boyd art dynasty, in his studio at ‘Bundanon’ in 1981. Boyd’s early work was Impressionist in style, but he later moved to a more Expressionist mode. His interests in Aboriginal themes and in landscape were evident in his art from as early as the 1950s.


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