During the 1880s and 1890s, Australian artists established outdoor painting camps in rural areas on the outskirts of Sydney and Melbourne. Among these, perhaps the best known is that at Eaglemont near the suburb of Heidelberg, because it gave the group of artists who painted here their popular name, the Heidelberg School.
In the summer of 1888, Arthur Streeton was given the use of the eight-bedroom semi-derelict weatherboard farmhouse on the summit of the hill on the Mount Eagle estate, with expansive views eastward across the Yarra valley towards the blue Dandenong Ranges. Charles Conder and Tom Roberts joined him, and the three artists painted there for two summers, visited from time to time by Frederick McCubbin, Walter Withers and other artists and friends. Conder recorded this sparsely furnished hut in his Impressionists’ camp, portraying Roberts seated reading and Streeton standing, with Streeton’s painting Impression for ‘Golden summer’ on the wall above the camp bed. It was perhaps Conder’s happiest time, which he recalled nostalgically from his studio in Paris: ‘Give me one summer again, with yourself and Streeton’, he wrote to Roberts, ‘the same long evenings, songs, dirty plates, and last pink skies. But these things don’t happen, do they? And what’s gone is over’.1
The artists organised picnics and painting excursions to the nearby hill and valley. In The Yarra, Heidelberg, Conder portrayed two young women bathing in the shallow river, having left their clothes on the nearby shore. Willy-wagtails pick the earth in the foreground and cows graze on the cleared land on the far hill, which basks in the warm glow of late afternoon. Conder rarely worked on such a large scale, and was probably encouraged by the success of Streeton’s bathing pictures, especially Spring, painted nearby only a few months earlier. Streeton’s image, however, is painted in a golden palette celebrating the new energies of spring, while Conder’s painting, with its deep browns and greens, can be seen as his lyrical farewell to long evenings, songs and dear friends; he left soon after for Europe, where he remained until his death in 1909. In Europe, in a response to Aestheticism and the fin de siècle, he established a reputation as a decorative artist, a painter of imaginative images of sexual intrigue and of people dressed in exquisite costumes in elegant settings.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002