Defining Moments in Australian History: The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

By AG STAFF August 31, 2022
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1889: A national Australian art movement emerges.

Australians in the 1880s were the world’s richest people per capita. Gold had brought money and ideas flooding into Melbourne’s population, which swelled between 1881 and 1891 from 268,000 to 473,000.Visiting English journalist George Sala described the emerging metropolis as “marvellous Melbourne”. Nationalism rose and people yearned for stories and images reflecting a new identity.

It prompted a strong appreciation of the arts, which saw the National Gallery of Victoria established in 1861. The gallery’s art school formed in 1867 and became the primary training institution for young artists in the colony. The school’s first master of painting was Austrian expatriate Eugene von Guérard, and early students included Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. Roberts had moved in 1869, aged 13, with his family from England to Melbourne. As a teenager he worked as a photographer’s assistant by day while studying art at night and in 1874 began classes at the art school. After his studies, he was encouraged to train overseas and the school awarded him a travel bursary. He painted in Europe between 1881 and 1885 and, while on a walking tour of Spain in 1883, met artists Ramon Casas and Laureà Barrau who introduced him to Impressionism, the new and exciting art movement then sweeping the world. 

Beginning in France and spreading across Europe in the 1870s and 1880s, Impressionism focused on quickly rendering the transient light and colour of a scene. It used rapid, loose brushstrokes, and painting en plein air (outside) was a major feature. Sketching outdoors had been popular since the 1700s but artists typically used the sketches as studies that were the basis of studio works. On his return to Australia in 1885, Roberts wanted to pass on his new approach and knowledge to his Melbourne colleagues. In late 1885, a core group of artists established the first artists’ camp at Box Hill on the eastern outskirts of Melbourne, where they painted Impressionist pieces en plein air. Another camp was later established in the north-east suburb of Heidelberg and the artists also painted in Melbourne’s seaside suburbs. Their art was also influenced by naturalism, another school of European art that focused on the reality of daily life rather than a romanticised image of it. 

The same year the camp began, Roberts met Streeton painting around Mentone in bayside Melbourne. By then Streeton had completed his studies at  Victoria’s art school and was working as a lithographer in Collins Street. 

Roberts described Streeton’s paintings as “full of light and air” and invited him to the artists’ camp. Like Streeton, Conder worked as a lithographer in the 1880s. Moving from Sydney to Melbourne in 1888, he soon began painting with the plein-air group at Box Hill and Heidelberg. Roberts, Conder and Streeton held a showing of their work at Buxton’s Rooms on Swanston Street, calling it the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition because most of the works were painted on 9 x 5-inch wooden boards, many of which were cigar box lids. The size meant the paintings could be priced to be accessible to the general public.It was Australia’s first major exhibition of Impressionist paintings and was carefully planned, marketed and presented. 

It opened on 17 August 1889 and featured 183 works, mostly by Roberts, Conder and Streeton. The subject matter varied from idyllic landscapes around Melbourne’s rural outskirts to atmospheric city views, figurative work and crowd scenes. Particular attention was paid to the presentation of the paintings; they were mounted with simple wooden frames rather than the more common gilt frames, and the space was decorated with silk scarves and drapes, Japanese umbrellas, screens and vases. This staging was inspired by the fashionable Aesthetic Movement, which focused on elegant, simple design with Oriental influences.

The exhibition attracted huge crowds but press coverage varied from curious to condemnatory, and the Victorian arts establishment was unenthusiastic. Australia’s then best-known art critic, James Smith, said in the Melbourne daily newspaper The Argus, “Of the 180 exhibits…something like four-fifths pain the eye.” Nevertheless, more than 80 paintings had sold by the exhibition’s end and the rest sold at auction after closing. The show was a resounding financial success for the artists. Roberts, Conder and Streeton went on to become key figures in Australian art being founding members of what, in 1891, American art critic Sidney Dickinson named the Heidelberg School, the first truly Australian art movement. 

‘The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’ forms part of the National Museum of Australia’s Defining Moments in Australian History project: