Menzies Art Brands



In 1891 Melbourne was booming. The confidence of the period extended to the group of young but highly skilled and ambitious artists who emerged at the time.  In 1889 Arthur Streeton, together with his friends Tom Roberts (1856-1931) and Charles Conder (1868-1909) combined for the 9 x 5 exhibition, probably the most important exhibition of paintings ever held in Australia. Streeton was a young (22 years old) artist on the threshold of a brilliant career. The groups shared ideas, derived from Roberts understanding of the latest European developments, and Conders lively naturalism, took the lead from the French Impressionists. They painted modern life in a modern way. The city and surrounding nearby countryside were the subjects for paintings that are direct, spontaneous, sensitively coloured and delightful.

Like many of the best paintings of this period, Autumn Day is experimental. The painting is a study of a moment in time. Streeton was, literally, depicting an impression, the impact made by intense colour on his retina. In order to achieve this he needed to be on the spot, standing in front of the group of trees, painting what he saw, and using the latest techniques from Europe to achieve a uniquely accurate and a particularly Australian effect. In addition to all of its intrinsic merits, Autumn Day is a very modern painting. 

It shows a screen or frieze of trees, effectively a band across its width. While foreground and distance are both painted indistinctly, the trees are rendered as a haze of autumnal colours supported by a tangle of tree trunks and limbs rendered using a combination of brushstrokes, scraping back and overpainting in order to accurately capture the varied textures and spatial dynamics of the subject. Squiggles, gouges and dabs of purples, rose and orange overlay the pale blue background above with darker depths to the right. To the left stands the figure of a girl, who, typically for Streeton, performs a more or less purely functional role of defining space. The densely painted vegetation is a virtuoso passage of classic Heidelberg School painting, combining elements of Conders heightened palette and Roberts distinctive rendering of surfaces. The painting neatly summarises the cross fertilisation amongst the artists, the communality of technique that characterised this period.  

The painting, known by its owners as Autumn Day was probably painted by Arthur Streeton at Templestowe in the autumn of 1891 and acquired by a prominent local farmer Robert Laidlaw. At the time, Streeton was already travelling further afield for subjects and was becoming a regular visitor to Sydney, however, considering the paintings provenance it is tempting to see the work as a specifically Heidelberg subject. Streeton first worked in the area (Box Hill) in 1887, and continued to visit regularly up to 1895. In 1891, Robert Laidlaw was a prominent local farmer. His house, Spring Bank still stands, surrounded by suburban Heidelberg, with an uninterrupted view of the Yarra River a few metres away.  Family tradition has it that the painting was swapped for food. Its not hard to imagine that the work was created not far from Spring Bank, and that in the prevailing mood and conviviality of the times Streeton may have enjoyed hospitality or provisions from Laidlaw and the painting may have been given as payment or a token of appreciation.

The painting is previously unrecorded, and is now being sold by Robert Laidlaws direct descendants.

Timothy Abdallah

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