Located on Level 2A of State Library Victoria, the Cowen Gallery features some magnificent paintings by Australian artists. Works by Eugene von Guerard, George Pownall and Jessie Traill, each of whom influenced or were influenced by Australian Impressionism, hang on the walls. Key to Australian Impressionism is depictions of the countryside and an emphasis on the quality of light in rural and regional Australia.

Eugene von Guerard was one of the first colonial painters to capture the Australian landscape and how it differed from that of the English countryside. He painted the natural environment, inspired by Italian and German painters. Von Guerard also had a preference for ‘open air’ paintings, which became a feature of Australian Impressionism later in the 19th century.1 It might even be said that von Guerard paved the way for this school of painters with a keen interest in the natural landscape. His paintings: Head of the Mitta Mitta; Eagle’s View of the Mountain; Plenty Ranges from East Melbourne; and Dr Howitt’s Corner, Dandenong Ranges, can all be found in the Cowen Gallery and are emblematic of his pioneering style.

Brown mountain ranges with a bare tree in the foreground
Head of the Mitta Mitta, Eagle’s View of the Mountains. Painting by Eugene von Guerard, 1879; H30578
A view of blue hills and trees in the countryside
Plenty Ranges from East Melbourne. Painting by Eugene von Guerard,1862; H1602
A horse and cart surrounded by trees and the view of a township with mountains in the background
Dr Howitt’s Corner, Dandenong Ranges. Painting by Eugene von Guerard, 21 May 1862; H1601

George Pownall’s works, Collins Street and Bourke Street, East, also feature in the Cowen Gallery. Pownall was not part of the Heidelberg School,2 but his work echoes their style, with his use of fuzzy brushstrokes and an emphasis on the quality of light.3 Collins Street and Bourke Street, East are examples of how Pownall depicted shades of light as a central feature of his painting, and seem to echo the work of the Australian Impressionists, for whom light, and all its properties, was a trademark interest.4

Collins Street. Painting by George Pownall, [ca 1912]; H33066
A busy street with trams and horses, lined by buildings under a cloudy sky
Bourke Street, East. Painting by George Pownall, [ca 1912]; H33067

Jessie Traill’s paintings are directly influenced by Australian Impressionism as she was taught by Frederick McCubbin, one of the leading figures of the Heidelberg School.5 Traill painted a mix of natural and industrial landscapes. Her painting Market Street, Melbourne hangs in the Cowen Gallery and evokes both Australian and French Impressionism styles. Her work, a cityscape of Melbourne, shares visual similarities with works by the famous French Impressionist, Camille Pissaro, who is known for his cityscapes of Paris.

A street filled with horse carriages and people on an overcast day
Market Street, Melbourne. Painting by Jessie Traill, [1912?]; H30880
A street in Paris lined with trees, people and carriages
Boulevard Montmatre on a Winter Morning. Painting by Camille Pissaro, 1897. From the collection of the Metropolitan Museum of Art, New York; 60.174

The Cowen Gallery is a must visit for any artist or art lover with an interest in Australian Impressionism. The works of Eugene von Guerard, George Pownall and Jessie Traill complement Australian Impressionism collections held at the National Gallery of Victoria. They shed light on how this new movement inspired Australian painters in the late 19th and early 20th centuries.

References

  1. Pullin, R, 2011, Eugene von Guerard: Nature revealed, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  2. The Heidelberg School were a group of painters who took up residence at Heidelberg, among other places, and who later became known as the Australian Impressionists
  3. Lane, T, 2007, Australian Impressionism, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  4. As above
  5. Art Gallery of NSW, 2022, viewed 22 April 2022, <https://www.artgallery.nsw.gov.au/collection/artists/traill-jessie/>

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