Visit to the NSW Art Gallery with 19th Century Students

Thank you all for your attendance and for making the exploration of Enlightenment, Romantic and Victorian Art such a joint adventure… you know more than you think you do: your insights are at the tips of your fingers… and you don’t need to be a great art critic to understand how paintings work, how they affect you and what they reveal of the cultural and historical context of their times…. and I did enjoy the exercise with one of you groups where we imagined what the conversations would be like in the room where these paintings would have been hangingin originally: especially that ugly lady with the PUG!…. So “Enlightened”… my foot!!!
So here goes for a gallery of images with some reflections on them:
So here we are on our way into the gallery.. and no that is not me hugging a mobile phone:

and now we are entering the holy of holies!: as some of you may have gathered it is currently hosting an internationally renowned exhibition of self-portraits.

Now I forgot to show this painting to you… in my rush to see ALL the others. As I said Australia was a perfect location for Romanticism to flourish: this new unadulterated landscape… free from the ills of European Enlightenment Civilization…. and here is a magnificent illustration of the continuation of this “Romantic/Wordsworthian” appreciation of the “beauteous forms of nature” here a giant, glowing, animated and animating Sydney Red Gum (actually an Angophora and not a Gum at all)… what an amazing image! And what does it say about nature’s impact and meaning???!!!


So here is the blurb next to the painting: you can just read it “The Golden Splendour of the Bush” 1906… so Romanticism stuck around for quite a time!!!


So let’s stick with the 19th Century Australian Romantics for a moment and travel back to the beginnings of Colonial Art… remember these guys were painting at the same time as Wordsworth and Coleridge were writing their “Frost at Midnight” and “Expostulation and Reply” etc etc… So here is that magnificent image by the Swiss born artist Eugene Von Guerard… Milford Sound NZ…. notice here “the beateous forms of nature” again… the human figures dwarfed by the towering mountains and that “straight enormous glaze” (quote from Slessor) of the lake/ocean… notice also how these Romantic artists, as well as being fascinated by “the Divine in Nature”… the mystery and power, were also fascinated by the amazing scientific detail of things… look at the foreground…. almost see the blades of grass… this is also the age of Charles Darwin…. etc etc… remember the fascination with science in “Pandaemonium”

And here is the English born colonial artist John Glover with his fascination for Aboriginals in their original setting…. shades of Rousseau’s “Noble Savage” – remember the William Blake image “Aboriginal Family of NSW”?

Now here is another one that I meant to show you but forgot: it is also Australian but comes from later in the 19th Century. It is in the next big room (remember the Heidelberg School of artists who learnt to paint outdoors?) So this painting by one of the Heidelbergs, Arthur Streeton, is called “Still Glides the Stream and Shall Forever Glide”- now who know where this title comes from? You guessed it; it is a line from Wordsworth from a poem William Wordsworth, The River Duddon, 1820. So here is Wordsworth literally translated into an Australian bush context…..

Now it was at this point that we all moved into the “Enlightenment Room”. Here we noticed those artists- like this huge ostentatious image- who celebrated the nobility by making them look more noble, more elevated, more superior… can’t bear standing underneath this stuck-up guy!… This, by the way, is by Blake’s enemy Joshua Reynolds… the man who Blake thought must have “hated art”… Blake was a man of strong opinions…. but it is true, paintings like this serve the pompous, grandiose side of human experience and is miles and miles away from the subtle inward journey of the Romantic poet and artist.

And to give a further taste of what drove the Englightenment artists… we here found an amazing image of the artist’s studio.. actually the sculptor’s studio… you said it: this art is dedicated to DECORATION… art as embellishing the living rooms of the gentry of the times…. a wonderful, graphic image this… but it gives away a whole lot about what these 18th Century artists were really interested in….

and here’s the blurb that went with this one:

Now to cap all this indulgence in decoration we found this ostentatious little image of the young lady holding a pug dog from the mid 1740s by Francois Boucher…. we had a ball imagining what the conversations might have been amongst those who sat in the living room where this painting originally hung: “oh, certainly, I just lurve that flowerette image on the saucer you are holding my sweet! I wonder whether Charles is bringing the Spaniel here for his afternooooooooon grooooooming!””” Please invent some more conversation….

But then… amazingly… amidst this barrage of Englightenment-Unenlightenment we found curiously some amazing Romantic paintings tucked away amongst them…. Have a geeze at these:
The first was Richard Westall’s “Landscape” 1811… and as many of you noted… full of mystery, atmosphere…. lacking in grandiose images of humans… almost a kind of “mindscape” with those roots sinking down the cliff face… and notice also that amazing attention to scientific detail in the foreground… a bit like the Eugene von Guerard we noticed above.

Next we moved towards the Victorian Hall… but on our way discovered this wonderful “Classical Landscape” by no less than our own Australian John Glover… although this painting obviously done before he arrived in this colonial outpost down-under… but what is intriguing here is that it is painted bang in the middle of the Romantic period (maybe even at its tail end) 1820… and yet it is a “Classical Landscape”… as I said…. paintings overlap periods… just because Romanticism sort of started after the French Revolution… this didn’t mean that all artists had to delete the word “Classical” from their paintings and turn them into “Romantic”!… But we pondered on this painting trying to find what Romantic elements might have crept in to this Classical Landscape…and we had some excellent insights… the atmospheric light… the unruly nature… despite the formal classical ruins and the two naked figures absorbing something of this misty atmosphere in the foreground…. good stuff John!!!

Next we turned into the Victorian Hall finally… and here indeed there are some wonders of the NSW Art Gallery Collection: Here is this staggering (literally and metaphorically) canvas by Ford Madox Brown – one of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood- who ventured into trying to recreate their vision of the beauty, richness, wholeness, aesthetic completeness…. yadidadida….of medieval times…. Here this magnificent image of Chaucer (Geoffrey no less) – father of English Poetry… reading his great magnum opus “The Canterbury Tales” to a gathered audience at the court of King Edward (the something???? 3rd, 7th….)… but notice how the audience has so many competing activities going on… I was talking about Victorian narrative painting…. the tendency to produce paintings that filled in the gaps for those poor film- starved, CD-starved, i-pod starved, mobile-phone- starved 19th Century audiences who would gather here of a Sunday arvo with picnic baskets and natter about what he and she in the paintin’ was doin….. But jokes aside… these Pre-Raphaelites- who will stumble into as we get into Victorianism proper were an amazing group of artist who loved paint, texture, light, the sensuous feel of, taste of, joy of AAAARRRRRTTTTTT!!!!!!!!…. they loved it… they were called by their enemies “The Fleshly School of Painters” – too sensual for the prudery of Victorian taste buds… or at least some of them…


Here are some close-ups from this amazing work… and this is followed by a couple of paintings by the founder of the Pre-Raphaelites: Dante Gabrielle Rossetti… poet and painter… who you will find in your Norton Anthology… so go there and have a look at some of his amazing poems.




As a dramatic contrast to this Victorian Pre-Raphaelite opulence, it is important to understand that what they were reacting against was the huge industrialization that was taking place in England and across Europe at this time. Farmers were being herded into cities; poor people had no quality of life and the laws had not yet caught up with the needs of those made destitute by the new social developments. This image is by Luke Field… entitled “The Widower” – it is the one painting in this collection that captures something of the tragedy of the poor that Dickens was so keen to represent in his novel “Hard Times”…. these were indeed hard times for many…. and it is this that the pre-raphaelites were struggling against:

Now I am going to log out with a bank of images from the last wall of the Victorian Hall: images of Victorian Women in all their guises….. But before that let’s have a geeze at this extrardinary moment in the afternoon’s proceedings when Adam sauntered up to me and showed me this amazing image of a doll looking just like me! I thought for a minute that I was on halluconigenics!…. even went bright red I was told… is this real I asked…. and then had to have a close up photo of the two of us:………what more can I say…… I hope no one is going to stick pins into this manikin tonight… have mercy!

And here is Lord Leighton’s diaphanous image of sensuous woman… here with the moon rising in the background… this is a typical Victorian mythological subject:


James Waterhouse was also fascinated with ancient history and myth, but here there is a difference… this depicts the story of the philosopher Diogenes who tried to simplify his life down to the basics… deciding to live in a barrel with as few resources as he possibly could… Here he is being spied upon, perhaps even mocked by a gaggle of brightly dressed young women who probably think he is……????



Last but not least this amazing, panoramic picture of a biblical narrative painting… the Victorians loved these grandiose paintings with massive gilt frames… art for them was a way of conquering space, distance, history…. I was reminded, while talking about this painting about the Victorian Crystal Palace which was built just near the Art Gallery in the late 1880s… it only lasted a few years however and was consumed by fire…. There is an image somewhere of this event… I will try and find it. Cheers over and out MG

Found it… here is the burning of the palace gardens in Sydney… can you see it is just inside the gates of the Botanic Gardens… opposite the Art Gallery…. in fact if you cross the road at the Public Library to go to the Gardens you can still see the original gates into the Palace Gardens….. chau

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