In 1886, when Tom Roberts painted this work, he was no stranger to shipboard life, having twice made the long journey from Europe to Australia, and once from Australia to Europe. The picture was painted after his return, on the Orient Line’s first mail steamer, S.S. Lusitania, from four years’ study in England, including time at the Royal Academy Schools and travels in continental Europe.
Maritime scenes, with their complex arrangements of masts and rigging, offered many compositional opportunities to artists. Such subjects had been popularised by Whistler in the 1850s and 1860s (with his Thames etchings) and Tissot (with his shipboard and quayside pictures) in the 1870s and early 1880s. Their confined or static passengers also afforded the opportunity for psychological observation, as we see here in the varied body language and facial expressions of Roberts’s travellers.
In spite of its almost photographic realism, Coming South is a very calculated picture. It would have been preceded by a large number of preparatory drawings for the individual figures and the composition, and perhaps by a colour study. In addition, it is an homage to the great seventeenth-century Spanish painter, Diego Velazquez, whose work Roberts would have known from reproductions and seen at the Prado in 1883. Roberts’s palette at this point in his career, with its greys, blacks, browns, off-whites and pink, owes much to Velazquez.
The painting is also a celebration of the migrant experience, and, as such, is Roberts’s first exploration of one of the enduring themes in Australian history.
Text © National Gallery of Victoria, Australia