Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton

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Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton

The Australian landscape painter Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943) was a leading member of the Heidelberg school, the Australian version of impressionism.

Arthur Streeton was born at Mount Duneed, Victoria, on April 8, 1867. He showed an early aptitude for sketching and, moving to Melbourne, became a lithographer's apprentice. While still in his teens he began studying at the National Gallery School.

When the painter Tom Roberts returned to Melbourne in 1885, the impressionist principles he brought back inspired a group of young artists. This became the Heidelberg school (named from the locale of the group's principal painting camp, overlooking the river Yarra, near Melbourne). Streeton joined the group in 1886 and was deeply influenced by impressionism. But he saw the need to stress high-key tonal values in order to translate into paint "the blue of the Australian skies and the clear transparency of Australian distances," and he struck out on a new course.

After the sale of a landscape in 1888 Streeton decided to abandon lithography. His artistic skill matured quickly, and Golden Summer and Still Glides the Stream (both 1888) were among his most notable paintings. In 1889 he and the Heidelberg group exhibited "9 × 5 Impressions"—mainly paintings on cigar-box lids—and the proceeds enabled Streeton to pursue his career. Much of his finest work was done in the next few years, such as the Purple Noon's Transparent Might (1896).

In 1898 Streeton went to London. On his return to Melbourne in 1907 he had a successful exhibition with good sales. His Australia Felix dates from this year. A oneman show in Sydney and a second in Melbourne followed. Back in London, he had little difficulty in securing commissions. The Paris Salon awarded him its Gold Medal in 1909.

Streeton joined the British army as a private in 1914. After being invalided out, early in 1918 he was commissioned by the Australian government as a war artist. After spending 2 years in Melbourne and then revisiting London, Streeton decided in 1923 to return permanently to Victoria. From his home in the picturesque hill country east of Melbourne, he continued to paint in his established manner. He was knighted in 1937 and died at Olinda, Victoria, on Sept. 1, 1943.

Streeton was a pioneer of the heroic impressionism which dominated the nation's art for half a century, beginning in the 1880s. In settings of well-clothed rolling countryside, his paintings invested the continent's inner pastoral lands with a truly Arcadian grandeur. His contemporaries saw him as a true product of "the sun and soil of his land," and he was acknowledged to be "a natural technician, with virtuosity and technical perfection including correct drawing and balanced design."

Further Reading

James Gleeson's commentary in his extensively illustrated review, Masterpieces of Australian Painting (1969), contains a significant survey of Streeton's life and work. His role in the development of Australian impressionism and its offshoots is detailed in Alan McCulloch, The Golden Age of Australian Painting (1969). The rise of the Heidelberg school and Streeton's role in it are also related by Elizabeth Young in Australian Painting: Colonial, Impressionist, Contemporary(1962), the catalog for the Australian Art Exhibition in London and Ottawa.

Additional Sources

Dutton, Geoffrey, Arthur Streeton, 1867-1943: a biographical sketch, Brisbane: Oz Pub. Co., 1987, 1988 printing.

Wray, Christopher, Arthur Streeton: painter of light, Milton, Qld.:Jacaranda, 1993. □