Menzies Art Brands


Colonial painting has often been criticised for being imagined painted memories of European scenery rather than depictions of root and branch of the Australian bush. The first immigrant painters, like contemporary painters now, were not immune from European fashion. Eugene von Gurard (1811-1901) moved from quiet representations of the goldfields to creating sublime expansive yet intricate formal panoramas of rural life; but his fashionable contemporaries Louis Buvelot (1814-1888) and Nicholas Chevalier (1828-1902) adopted a more subjective approach creating dappled pictures that often pre-figured impressionism and the very Australian Heidelberg School rising by the turn of the century. By contrast Isaac Whiteheads pictures were a keenly-observed colonial record: he painted what he saw.

Whitehead moved to Victoria with his family in the 1850s, creating a business as a master gilder and picture framer to von Gurard, Chevalier and Buvelot and their colonial contemporaries. His frames were patterned, elaborate and fashionable and his business was successful, allowing him to develop his skills as a painter. From his base in Melbourne, he travelled into rural Victoria and the bushland east of Melbourne. He developed considerable skill in rendering the giant Mountain Ash trees in the forests of Gippsland, with his paintings having an overall patterned quality and little compositional drama. 1  However, what Whitehead was able to achieve in his forest landscapes was a sense of scale, placing tree giants in ferny glades to emphasise their spectacular size.

Whiteheads colonial colleagues von Gurard, Chevalier and Buvelot all visited New Zealands South Island in search of sublime vistas. Whitehead similarly found his way to visit New Zealand in the 1870s, possibly motivated by his friends enthusiasm: it is here that he painted Milford Sound, New Zealand, 1878. The colonial painters of the day would have visited this location by steamer; even to this day it remains a remote 4 hour drive from Queenstown through the Southern Alps. Whiteheads Milford Sound shows clearly his characteristic skills as a colonial painter: the overall patterned effect of the image with the foreground framing the mountains; the mountains themselves are rendered with impressive scale through an emphasis on the vertical sea cliffs. The curved tree trunks in the foreground water at the head of the Sound create a rhythmic framing pattern that is echoed in the flattened growth of beech trees in the lower edges. They are painted in a manner that is stylised rather than exacting. His vantage point from the inner reaches of the Sound looks west towards the sea entrance, hidden beyond the chasm between Mitre Peak on the left and the adjacent Stirling Falls. He paints the natural arch of a magnificent hanging valley with the Pembroke Glacier somewhat hidden in the alpine tops beyond.

In von Gurards Milford Sound, New Zealand, 1877-9, in the collection of the Art Gallery of New South Wales, and often hanging for display in the colonial room, there is a greater emphasis on topographical detail, with an overall maudlin violet colouration giving a sense of the vista being closed in towards nightfall. His image, perhaps grander in scale, lacks the implied rustic intensity of the Whitehead. Their emotional positions differ, as do their paintings viewpoints. Von Gurards line of sight is from a point near Lady Bowen Falls towards a more classical view of the bishops hat shape of Mitre Peak. Both paintings have light-filled skies glazed with thin washes of paint, layer after layer. Both have the American Luminists appeal of sky to land ratio of 2:1. Ironically, Von Gurards image is encapsulated in a richly decorated gold frame hand made by Isaac Whitehead.


1.  Johns, E. et al., New Worlds from Old: 19th Century Australian and American Landscapes, catalogue accompanying National Gallery of Australia exhibition, Thames & Hudson, Melbourne, 1998, p.180

Professor Peter James Smith BSc (Hons); MSc; M Stats; MFA; PhD

We use our own and third party cookies to enhance your experience of our site, analyse site usage, and assist in our marketing. By continuing to use our site you consent to the use of cookies. Please refer to our privacy and cookie policy.