Having been referred to as “the last bohemian”, the unconventional life of the gifted artist, Charles Conder has made him one of the most intriguing artists of the late 19th century. Leaving a lasting impression on the Australian and international art world he is considered to have played a large role in establishing the great Heidelberg School of Impressionism, arguably the beginning of a distinctively Australian tradition in Western Art.
The London born Conder arrived in Sydney in 1884 to work as a surveyor. During the two years he worked surveying the country he studied his art by night and soon joined the staff of the Illustrated Sydney News where he became influenced by the impressionistic art of Girolamo Nerli and was guided under the authority of such prolific artists as Julian Ashton. Conder often accompanied the artist to paint ‘plein air’ within the Hawesbury River region of New South Wales or to overlook Sydney’s beaches.
In 1888 Conder befriended fellow artist Tom Roberts who invited Conder to visit him in the Box Hill painting camps of Melbourne. Having instantly fallen in love with the bohemian lifestyle in this idyllic countryside Conder soon moved to live and work at the camp permanently with the Australian Heidelberg artists, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin.
From 1889 to 1890 Conder lived on the homestead, Eaglemont sharing an old farmhouse on the Mount Eagle estate with Arthur Streeton. It was here that he adopted a taste for urban, bayside and bushland scenes where his sensitivity to people and place was greatly strengthened. His most famous works painted at this time include A Holiday a Mentone and Under the Southern Sun. They serve to capture the artist’s humourous touch, vigorous brushwork, brilliant palette and complex composition, depicting scenes of everyday Australian life and reflecting Conder’s strong connection to the cult of Japonais.
In his time at Eaglemont Conder and his fellow artists planned the famous 9 x 5 Impression exhibition. It was to become a landmark for the way it helped to bring recognition and appreciation to a quintessential Australian style of art and exhibiting 46 of his own works Conder was a chief instigator of this. Of this celebrated group of artists Conder, with his charismatic and bohemian outlook, became the only one to reach a high level of success outside of Australia going on to become a renowned figure of the international art world of London and Paris.
Charles Conder returned to Europe in 1890. His carefree charm and delicate, witty paintings endeared him to literary and artistic circles and in Paris he soon found himself mixing with the fin de siecle generation as an habitué of the Moulin Rouge counting such notable individuals as Toulouse-Lautrec, Oscar Wilde, Ernest Dowson and Aubrey Beardsley as close friends.
This perhaps was the time that ultimately led Conder to being dubbed “the last bohemian”. He fully embraced the bohemian lifestyle working in an intermittent and constant fashion, living life to the full and forever finding himself in debt.
Greatly inspired by Whistler, Watteau and Japanese art Conder’s work, particularly with silk, watercolour and chalk has been described by critics to have, “summed up, in small scale, sensuality, nature and the idylls of a romantic past.” It allowed him to ultimately be recognized as a significant symbol of the art nouveau movement with his work receiving much worthy praise from prominent artists such as Pissaro and Degas.
In Paris 1901 Chales Conder married the Canadian widowed socialite, Stella Maris Belford who rescued him from spiralling into a life of poverty. Sadly his bohemian lifestyle took its toll and the artist died in his fortieth year, 1909 after having descended into a syphilitic madness.
Conder’s popularity was proven even after his death when in July 1927 an exhibition at Horden’s Gallery, Sydney showed the public 121 of his works including oils, watercolours, drawings and lithographs for a total of 782 pounds.
Today the work of Charles Conder can be found hanging in many major collections and institutions, including the Tate Britain, The Victoria and Albert Museum, the National Portrait Gallery in London and the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York.