The Artists

The Heidelberg School

The Heidelberg School was the first significant art movement in Australia. The name originated in July 1891, when art critic, Sidney Dickinson wrote the following review of the exhibitions of Walter Withers and Arthur Streeton.

The Australian Critic, July 1st, 1891

Two prominent members of the coterie of Melbourne Artists are at the present moment holding Exhibition of their works. Mr Arthur Streeton, in Mr Tom Roberts’s studio, Grosvenor Chambers; and Mr Walter Withers, at Number 463 Collins Street. Both these artists are of that practice which may be called, for purposes of distinction, the “HEIDELBERG SCHOOL” for their work has been done chiefly in this attractive suburb, where, with others of like inclination, they have established a summer congregation for out-of-door painting.

Their pictures have attracted, in the Exhibitions of several recent seasons, no small amount of attention, having shewn [sic] in marked degree the qualities of original observation and individual treatment; these characteristics are strongly noticeable in the present instance, and afford a hopeful augury for the future development of Australian art.

Mr Withers’s collection of a dozen canvases gives the most satisfactory exposition of his abilities that has ever been made by this sincere and painstaking artist. They shew [sic] a very even and advanced order of merit, and are painted with good observation and a high degree of skill. The subjects, which are all selected from the region about Heidelberg, are such as lend themselves particularly to treatment by an artist who has a high appreciation of color, and, as treated by Mr Withers, shew [sic] very conclusively the fallacy of the general opinion that Australia is not rich in picturesque features.

It would be quite impossible to find, in any part of the world, more striking effects than are found ready to the artist’s hand in the Australian landscape at certain seasons of the year. The golden glory of English Wheat-fields cannot excel the splendour of the wide wastes of grazing land under the dry sky of an Australian summer, as Mr Withers shews [sic] us in his “After the heat of the Day”, nor can the variegated hues of the American autumn much surpass the tints of the ripened Eucalyptus as seen in his capital picture of “The Trysting Place”. Mr Withers manifests a clear-eyed observation and decided skill in description in these works, which are, moreover, painted with true carefulness and modesty. The aspect of Australian nature under cooler conditions is shown in “An Australian Homestead” which we consider the best work in the collection, “Over the Hills and far away” and several others, which show a nice appreciation of quiet color, clear atmosphere and agreeable tone. Works like these justify a hopeful augury for the future of Colonial art, and some of them at least, will surprise by their excellence many opinions that have been formed of its present condition. [Sidney Dickinson]

Since the time of the Sidney Dickinson article, the term ‘Heidelberg School’ has taken on a broader meaning, and there are now numerous and diverse publications on the subject. The term is no longer restricted to those artists who painted in the Heidelberg area, but is used to cover the Australian artists of the late Nineteenth Century who worked ‘plein air’ at a number of popular painting sites.

In the 1880’s and 1890’s, significant ‘plein air’ painting sites included the Gardiners Creek area of Box Hill, the foreshore area of Port Phillip Bay, particularly between Brighton and Mentone, and the sunlit valley of the Yarra River in the vicinity of Heidelberg, East Ivanhoe, Eaglemont and Templestowe. Later significant sites included Eltham, Warrandyte, Diamond Creek and areas of the Dandenong Ranges, such as Olinda and Kallista.

Andrew Mackenzie
Art Historian

Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890
Collection: National Gallery of Australia, Canberra.

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