Australias’s Impressionists, ever heard of them? Yes, No? Well, I hadn’t. Not one of the 4 artists showcased in The National Gallery’s current exhibition even vaguely rung a bell. But I have to say, my loss, for their colour palette, subject matter and honest ingenuity is as intriguing and seductive as much of the work by their European counterparts. Australia’s Impressionists may not bask in the same limelight as Monet, Renoir and Degas do, but it is about time they are praised with some of the well-earned recognition they whole-heartedly deserve.

Arthur Streeton, Sandridge, about 1888, Oil on wood panel, 12.8 × 23.3 cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, Purchased 1969, © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

The exhibition concentrates on the work of Australia’s four most prominent Impressionists; John Russell, Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder. All four men were advocates of en plein air painting – a term used to describe the act of painting outside from life rather than from the inside of a studio – and experimental with the effects of luminosity. Just like their European counterparts, brush strokes are thick and imprecise and their pastel colour palettes are mesmerising. Yet what seems so strange on entering the exhibition is their chosen subject matter. Europe.

Tom Roberts, Fog, Thames Embankment, 1884, Oil on paperboard, 13.1 × 21.7 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Purchased with funds provided by the Gleeson O’Keefe Foundation 2008, © AGNSW.

Scenes of London and the French countryside abound in the first gallery. Tom Roberts’ depictions of The Embankment, The Thames and The National Gallery are reassuringly comforting; it seems familiarity births likeability. Fog, Thames Embankment, 1884, is one such example. The canvas speaks to those dewy mornings or dusky evenings along the Thames so familiar to Londoners as well as to the compositions of similar scenes, previously painted by Monet, Pissarro and Whistler. Russell’s Madame Sisley on the Banks of the Loing at Moret, 1887, likewise, couldn’t be any less Australian. The composition is a point blank reference to Russell’s close-knit friendship with Alfred Sisley, and thus more subtly to his knowledge of the Impressionists and their style. Russell, born in Sydney, left for London in 1981, and moved to Paris a few years later. Here he met and socialised with recognised Masters of his time including Monet, Van Gogh and Toulouse-Lautrec. Highly illustrative text panels in the first gallery clarify to what extent Europe served as an educational training for the Australian Impressionists.

Tom Roberts, A Break Away!, 1891, Oil on canvas, 137.3 x 167.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, Elder Bequest Fund 1899, © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide.

However, as the exhibition progresses, so does the individuality of the Australian Impressionists. It soon becomes a question of self-identity and more particularly Australian identity. With the success of the 9 By 5 Impression in Melbourne in 1889 – an exhibition named after the size of the cigarette boxes used as canvasses by the participating artists – confidence and originality grows. Colour palettes seem bolder as the artists turn to more locally inspired scenes. In the second gallery, Australia finally makes its great grand entrance. Arthur Streeton’s Fire’s On, 1891, is undeniably one of the show’s highlights and the marker for a shift in thematic. It is an entirely Australian scene – the canvas depicts the construction of the railway line across the Blue Mountains in South Wales – with an entirely Australian palette. A scorching dry heat emanates from the canvas, while a devastatingly raw, rather more Naturalistic scene, is depicted in a dusty palette of reddish browns.

Arthur Streeton, Fire’s On, 1891, Oil on canvas, 183.8 × 122.5 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney, Purchased 1893, © AGNSW.

The National Gallery’s exhibition is not a blockbuster, but its curators open your eyes to an entire group of artists whose talents and expertise have until now been rather overlooked. During a transitional period of great change and development in Australia, these four artists created works that would come to mirror the emerging socio-economic status of a newly independent nation. And that, in my opinion, is worth its weight in gold.

By Lucy Scovell

Australia’s Impressionists – The National Gallery, London, WC2N 5DN, 7 December 2016 – 26 March 2017.