Elioth Gruner (1882- 1939)

Elioth Gruner was born in 1882 at Gisborne, Poverty Bay in New Zealand to an Irish Mother (Mary Ann Brennan) and Norwegian Father (Elliott Gruner Snr). His family moved to Australia in 1883 where his art education began in 1894 at the age of 14, attending drawing lessons at the Julian Ashton Art School while holding down a job as a draper’s assistant. During his time at art school, Gruner met George Lambert, who was to remain a lifelong inspiration.

Following the death of his brother in 1898, Gruner became the sole supporter of his family. As this led him to financial hardship, it had a profound impact on his art and he was only able to afford paint in the three primary colours plus white.

However, despite the hardships, by October 1901, Gruner was regularly exhibiting his work with the Sydney Society of Artists. His first work to be accepted for hanging in the Society of Artists Spring Show was a still life of violets. As this prompted recognition within the Australian art world, Gruner began to attract serious attention from 1907, counting the prolific artist, Norman Lindsay as one of his admirers. By 1913, Gruner was frequently visiting Lindsay’s Blue Mountains Estate, Springwood to paint plein air with Lindsay and Harley Griffiths.

In 1912, Gruner left his job as a draper’s assistant to manage the Fine Arts Society’s Bligh Street gallery and shop. Dealing solely with Australian art, this job served to give Gruner a greater understanding of the art industry and what type of work constitutes recognition and success.

After a brief stint as an assistant at the Julian Ashton Art School, Gruner visited Melbourne in 1915 to paint with Griffiths and Max Meldrum. This trip was particularly significant to the development and technique of Gruner’s work as he became strongly affected by the tonal theories of Meldrum and Griffiths. During his time in Melbourne he also visited the National Gallery of Victoria to see Corot’s celebrated work The Bent Tree which also acted as an inspiration.

Having drawn inspiration from Griffiths, Meldrum, Corot and J.J Hilder, and maintaining an intense preoccupation with the effects of light, Gruner began to produce his finest work, becoming one of the most successful and popular landscape painters of the 1910-38 period. Painting plein air predominantly around the Emu Plains and Windsor area, Gruner went on to win the Wynne prize for landscape in 1916 for his painting Morning Light. Following this win, Gruner was awarded the prize another six times in 1919, 1921, 1929, 1934, 1936 and 1937, his style celebrated and recognised for reflecting his mixed Norwegian and Irish parentage.

Gruner’s success brought him many offers of commission and in 1921 he was commissioned by the trustees of the Art gallery of New South Wales to paint the large piece, The Valley of the Tweed. Taking four months to complete, this work was painted entirely in the open air and represented his official acceptance by the elitist art world.

In 1923, Gruner travelled to London to manage the Society of Artists’ exhibition of Australian art at Burlington House and the Royal Academy. As Gruner was a man who could neither handle too much praise nor criticism, his style changed dramatically when he escorted Sir William Orpen around the exhibition, only to have his paintings subjected to harsh criticism from a man who had no clue he was actually talking to the artist. Orpen openly made constructive comments on how his style could be changed and improved.

Following this embarrassment, Gruner spent two years in Europe where he became impressed by the work of Cezanne and Gaugin. Returning to Sydney in early 1925, Gruner accepted Orpen’s advice and began to produce different styles of artworks. His work came to reflect an English style of modernism, showing in smaller sized pictures, flattened forms, a higher vantage-point, thinner application of paint, a pastel-like surface and a subdued tonality. Consequently, Gruner’s new paintings did extremely well in the art market and in 1932 a large loan exhibition of his work was held by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Gruner died in October 1939 after suffering from chronic nephritis and in the following year, the Art Gallery of NSW held a retrospective of his work. Today Elioth Gruner is represented in all Australian state galleries.

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