Arthur Streeton (1867 – 1943)

Best known for his rural landscapes, Arthur Streeton’s skill in rendering distance and atmosphere, his selection of subject and the feeling he evoked of actual participation in the life of the landscape, brought him nationwide popularity and success. As one of the key founders of the renowned Heidelberg school, Streeton became one of Australia’s most celebrated and influential figures, furthering the value of Australian art and allowing it to be recognised in its own right.

Born in Mt. Dundeed, Victoria in May 1867, Arthur Streeton left school at the age of thirteen to work for a merchant company and returned to a formal education as a student at the National Gallery of Victoria School from 1882-88. It was here that Streeton became greatly influenced by the distinct styles of French Impressionism and the works of Turner by which he was intrigued by the artist’s high-keyed palette technique.

Streeton’s time at art school was also particularly significant for the way it began his association with fellow artists, Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts. On regular excursions to rural settings on the outskirts of Melbourne including Box Hill, Heidelberg and Templestowe, the three men began plein air painting of these scenes. It was these regular artistic practices which ultimately led the artists to become to founding members of the renowned Heidelberg School, an artist’s camp established at Eaglemont in 1888.

In 1885 Streeton presented his first exhibition at the Victorian Academy of Art and consequently, found employment as an apprentice lithographer under the instruction of Charles Troedel. Having completed his apprenticeship, Streeton moved to the Eaglemont estate in 1888 which he shared with Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Walter Withers.

Remaining at Eaglemont for two years, it was during this time that Streeton created his most famous landscapes with the notion that the unique indigenous beauty of the Australian bush should be depicted as a blue and gold country with vigorous square brushstrokes.

His painting of the Yarra River valley entitled, Still glides the stream and shall forever glide (1890) shows a winding river which runs through the middle of the image accompanied by a landscape of a bright yellowish shade. As a quintessentially Australian painting, it was the first of Streeton’s landscapes to be purchased by a major gallery, that being the Art Gallery of New South Wales who bought the piece for seventy pounds. This began the artist’s tremendous success and the rise of an important local art market.

However, although Streeton’s distinct style of landscape painting came to dominate the Australian scene for more than a decade, his career was highlighted with many frustrations concerning his artistic ability. For example, he felt he had an inability to portray the human figure in his work, and thus grew to envy his colleague, Frederick McCubbin. Streeton also felt frustration for his inability to crack the international market, particularly that of London art world.

In 1896 the artist completed his work, The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might. This was painted from the top of a hill overlooking the Hawkesbury River, N.S.W and brought Streeton heightened recognition from the Australian public. He went on to hold an outstandingly successful exhibition in Melbourne in 1897 before sailing for London.

In 1900 Streeton held an exhibition at the Royal Academy and became a member of the Chelsea Arts Club in 1903. However, despite the success he had achieved in Australia, he failed to develop a notable reputation for himself in England. As a result, for twenty-five years Streeton’s career fluctuated between painting in Australia and trips back to London. Financed by the sales of his paintings at home in Australia, Streeton’s frequent trips to London served to reinforce a strong sense of patriotism towards the British Empire, which ultimately led him to enlist in the coming war with Germany.

Returning to Australia in 1906 to a royal welcome, Streeton completed some works at Mount Macedon in February 1907 before returning to London that October. He went on to paint in Venice in September 1908, producing Venetian pictures based on admiration for the work of Turner and Sargent. The resulting works were exhibited in Australia in July 1909 under the name of “Arthur Streeton’s Venice”.

In 1915 Streeton joined the Royal Army Medical Corps where he worked at the third London General Hospital in Wandsworth and received the position of corporal. However, as he was deeply affected by what he witnessed during his time in the hospital, he was discharged in 1917 and deemed medically unfit.

Having recovered, Streeton was made an Australian Official War Artist with the Australian Imperial Force. Holding the rank of lieutenant, he travelled to France in 1918 and was attached to the 2nd Division. As a war artist, Streeton continued to deal in landscapes and “military still life” in which he captured the everyday moments of the war. This, however, led his work to be criticised for failing to place an emphasis on the action of battlefield.

Returning to Australia in December 1919, Streeton resumed his painting in the Grampians and Dandenong Ranges and built a house on five acres at Olinda, Victoria in 1924 where he continued to paint until his death in 1943.

Significant moments in Arthur Streeton’s career until his death included his winning of the Wynne Prize for landscape in 1928 with his work Afternoon Light, Goulburn Valley; his job as an art critic from 1929 to 1935 for The Argus and his conferred knighthood in 1937 for his services to the arts.

Following his death, Streeton’s paintings became the most collectible of Australian artists, fetching record prices. In the 1980s his work, Golden Summer, Eaglemont was bought in a private sale by the National Gallery of Australia for AU$3.5 million and his 1890 painting, Sunlight Sweet, Coogee, was sold for AU$2.04 million, becoming only the second painting by an Australian artist to exceed the AU$2 million mark at auction.

Today Arthur Streeton’s work is displayed in many major Australian galleries and collections, including the National Gallery of Victoria, the Art Gallery of New South Wales, the National Gallery of Australia and the Australian War Memorial, Canberra.

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