22. ARTHUR STREETON
Sunday Morning from Cremorne of 1907, shows the wide vista of a peaceful coastal inlet, with a number of sail boats, being enjoyed by two female companions. The sparsely wooded and uncrowded landscape is bathed in the windless calm of the midday hazy glow of seaside light, whose bluish tints colour the entire atmosphere of the painting.
The overall ambience captured in the painting is one of blissful ease – with a hint of wistful nostalgia. So much so that, in a technical and mood-setting sense, the present painting outlines, in part, the stylistic form and “softer” paint handling of at least one of Streeton’s earlier works: A Bush Idyll 1896 in the Art Gallery of New South Wales (Gift of Dr. Joseph Brown, 1991).
The impression of poised mood and contemplative stillness is a hallmark attribute of Streeton’s art. It is seen to greatest effect in his paintings some ten years before and ten years after the turn of the Century. Its most noteworthy expression is to be found in his famous Australia Felix canvas of 1907, now in the Art Gallery of South Australia. The present painting, Sunday Morning from Cremorne, shares the same year as do his well-known Sydney Harbour and Sydney Harbour from Penshurst (Cremorne) both of which are in the permanent collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
Importantly, these works are dated as being created earlier in the year of his return to London (October 1907), where he married on 11 January 1908, the Canadian Leonora (Nora) Clench, the violin prodigy who rose to international prominence after her performances as first violinist in Buffalo in upper New York State. Clench studied under Adolf Brodsky in Leipzig and after many renowned concerts gave a command performance for Queen Victoria in London. The couple found lodgings and for the next three months lived on Abbey Road in St. John’s Wood close by Regent’s Park, before travelling to Europe for a honeymoon; she retired after marrying Streeton and permanently moved to Australia in 1924. Her social status and personal contacts ensured that Streeton’s fame gathered considerable pace with many private and public commissions, social engagements and the like.
The broad observation that can be made is that the paintings that preceded this busy and more expansive period have more natural, open-aired and directly observed, rather than recollected, “Australian” qualities. Furthermore, his pre-London paintings tend to instil their content rather than simply present it; they are “taken-in” just as one might take in a beautiful view rather than just look at it. In them, Streeton’s art imparts; his eye educates our own.
The point is that, by and large, Streeton’s artistic techniques and aesthetic aims came to respond to much wider aims, especially after his second trip to London in 1908. His modifications of approach from that year onwards (the period just after the present painting) seem to owe something to seeing, and admiring, the paintings of the American John Singer Sargent (1856-1925) in London. Sargent was one of the most technically brilliant and pre-eminent artists of the time; his paintings embraced the adroit use of convex layers of sumptuous paint and a corresponding use of highlighting colour – his deftly executed works are optically luscious. These new ‘painterly’ attributes originally arose from the theories of the little-known French artist Charles Carolus-Duran (1837-1917) who in turn learnt much from his own close study of the remarkable techniques of the great Spanish artist Diego Velázquez (1599-1660).
In other words, there is something notably important and decidedly ‘home-grown’ about Streeton’s paintings before his trip to London in 1908. He always fervently believed that the unique attributes of the Australian landscape could move artists and poets just as European landscapes moved English and Continental artists.
In his view, one did not need to sing the songs of others. Streeton acted on his belief in a localised emphasis and used a sympathetic vision to sharpen his aesthetic grasp of the particular beauty of the Australian landscape, especially when viewing its airy and wide expanses at lyrical and wistfully diurnal moments.
Deep down, his paintings of this period rely upon what might be called an optical embrace. Streeton did not just record a scene; he made the scene the subject of his art, often in ways that allowed the compacted impressions brushed into existence in the art of the painting to aesthetically surpass the natural beauty of the actual scene.
The main point is clear: Streeton’s poetically inflected vision is what charges his remarkable paintings with their charming local accents and visual aptness. Of course, he did all this with wonderful paint handling and skill and the best of his works are characterised by a light-handed virtuosity that presents a substantial advance upon the topographical effects strained after by artists of an earlier Colonial generation. Little wonder that Streeton was universally considered to be the most famous and accomplished Australian landscape painter of his generation.
These wider observations are bolstered by most scholars and historians who now agree that had the Duneed-born Streeton lived in Paris, his artworks would mark him out as the equal of Édouard Manet (1832-1883) and, perhaps, even the great French artist Gustave Courbet (1819-1877). Whatever the case, it is certain that Streeton’s paintings belonged on the same level as his artistic contemporaries in England and France.
Even in his time there were many who agreed. For instance, he was awarded a Bronze Medal from the Société des Artistes Français and was accepted as a full member of Royal Society of British Artists in London. He also gained an Honourable Mention at the Paris Salon - the first Australian to do so.
Sunday Morning from Cremorne of 1907 depicts the type of ‘visual pastoral poem’ ambience that made Streeton so justifiably famous. Its rectangular wide-angle format invites visual scanning in the same way that a film’s panning sweep unfolds a location. The painting’s composition accentuates this visual reading through its division into three horizontal bands. The near foreground is broadly brushed as though to introduce the setting; it carries no distracting detail in order to highlight the prominence of the almost centrally placed figures and the offset clump of trees. This frontal setting is visually balanced by the painting’s mid-ground right-hand section with its counterpointing mass of vegetation and perched houses. The painting’s third zone is restricted to the upper section, which depicts a sky smudged with various blues and pinks The overall effect is to lead the viewer’s eye ‘into’ the painting in a left to right to left zig-zag fashion and thereby to suggest pictorial depth in a scene that has no hints of any receding lines of perspective.
In Sunday Morning from Cremorne of 1907 one sees a cajoling calm. The softly lit charm of the scene is captured in a dreamy haze that denotes a sense of place as well as a particular time of day. The picture plane’s visual ‘zones’ induce interest and no detail is overworked in any way that may detract from the atmospheric veneers of hazy light – the painting exudes ease and even the paint seems to “loll” on the surface of this rare and enticing painting.
Anon., “The Art of Arthur Streeton: Landscapes and Flowers”, The Age, Melbourne, 4 April 1929
Anon., Sir Arthur Streeton - Obituary: The Argus, 2 September 1943, p.3
Arthur Streeton Number, Art in Australia, Third Series, Number 40, Sydney, Art in Australia, 1931
Eagle, M., The Oil Paintings of Arthur Streeton in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, National Gallery of Australia, 1994
Galbally, A., Arthur Streeton, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1972.
Galbally, A., “Streeton, Sir Arthur Ernest (1867-1943)”, Australian Dictionary of Biography, Vol.12, 1990, pp 119-121
Gleeson, J., Impressionist Painters 1881-1930, Landsdowne, Melbourne, 1971
Galbally, A., Gray, A., Letters from Smike: The Letters of Arthur Streeton, 1890-1943, Melbourne, Oxford University Press, 1989
Lindsay, L., “Arthur Streeton’s Place in Australian Art”, Art in Australia, Ure Smith, Sydney, No.2, 1917
Smith, G., Arthur Streeton, the Man and his Art 1867-1943, Melbourne, National Gallery of Victoria, 1995
Associate Professor Ken Wach
Dip. Art; T.T.T.C.; Fellowship RMIT; MA; PhD.
Former Principal Research Fellow and Head,
School of Creative Arts
The University of Melbourne