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In 1889 Arthur Streeton, together with Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder stood on the threshold of a momentous era in Australian Art. The term Heidelberg School, coined by critic Sidney Dickinson, which we now use to describe the era came about as the most important artists of the period gathered in the Yarra valley not far from Melbourne and created the paintings upon which they built their reputations and careers.

Streeton had visited the Heidelberg area a few years earlier, as a student. From 1886-1888 he worked at George Troedel and Co. as an apprentice lithographer. A chance meeting while painting at Beaumaris beach brought him into contact with McCubbin and Roberts, who invited him to join them at the artists camp at Box Hill. Streeton was able to reciprocate when at the end of 1889 he established the camp at Eaglemont near Heidelberg. Streeton was given artistic possession of the large rambling farmhouse by the owner Charles Davies, the elder brother of the Gallery School friend David Davies. He set up a studio there and soon invited his friends to join him.1

The farm and surrounding countryside were to become the inspiration for some of Streetons most important paintings. These included three large scale oil on canvas compositions each of which measured 82.0 x 153.0 cm, and each of which is now in the permanent collection of one of Australias leading public collections: Golden Summer 1889 (National Gallery of Australia); Heidelberg 1890 (National Gallery of Victoria), and the finished final version of the present painting, Still Glides the stream, and shall for ever glide 1890. These paintings, and in particular the sale of the final version of Still Glides the Stream to the Art Gallery of New South Wales confirmed Streetons place in the history of Australian art.

Study for Still Glides the Stream depicts the Yarra Valley near Heidelberg. Now a part of suburban Melbourne the area was at that time pasture and low lying river flat country. Today visitors to the area can stand near the spot where Streeton worked at Burke Road North, East Ivanhoe. The topography can still be appreciated by visitors to the Heide Museum and Art Gallery which is situated on the opposite river bank in parklands that gradually descend to the river. The final version clearly shows the Yarra which winds its way from the foothills of the Dandenongs in the distance. The study was painted plein air from the rising ground on the western banks of the river and depicts the view North East across the valley towards Templestowe. Heidelberg is to the left and Bulleen to the right. In the final version, Streeton moved a short distance south, or to the right of the present painting in order to include the Yarra River, which is obscured by trees in the study.

Streeton used the subject in a number of compositions at the time. In addition to the present work, and the final version, there is an oil sketch in the Queensland Art Gallery. Above us the Great grave sky, 1890, oil on canvas, 68.3 x 35.4 cm (National Gallery of Australia) which repeats the motif in a vertical format, also depicts the moon rising at dusk, and uses a poem by Adam Lindsay Gordon as the basis for its title. His The light of the moon, 1889, and now in the Shepparton Art Gallery, is one of several 9 by 5 paintings that are also close to the Study and final painting.

The painting also relates closely to works by the other members of the Heidelberg School. The collegial competitive atmosphere of the small group is evident in the many similarities that exist between the artists. Comparison between the present painting and Tom Roberts Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the suns last look, 1887-88, oil on canvas, 51.0 x 76.6 cm (NGV), for example demonstrates how close their work could be. Both artists chose the last moments of a still late summer day, with the view to the East, across the shallow Yarra valley at Heidelberg. It is not hard to imagine the artists standing side by side in front of the subject painting the same scene. In a letter to Roberts biographer,R.H. Croll, Streeton wrote:

Before 1886 we were all rather attracted by the conventional aspect of the brilliant colour of the western sky at sunset. Roberts was the first to point out the exquisite and delicate variation in colour and tone of the eastern sky at sunset, and the rosy flush of the afterglow, our nearest approach to twilight in the northern hemisphere.2

Streeton, Conder and Roberts all used times of day and the seasons to evoke moods and give depth to their paintings. These sensitive and often very delicately painted works also allowed the artists to show to full effect their highly developed technical facility. The artists were fairly young and yet Streeton, who until 1888 was a student at the National Gallery School and 20 years of age when the Study was painted, demonstrated with the paintings of this period his impeccable technique. The other leading figures in the group, Roberts, about 10 years older was 31 and McCubbin, the eldest member 33 also commanded exceptional levels of skill as painters. The period is also characterised by a high work-rate. As well as the major painting she worked on at the time, Streeton was busy creating the 40 paintings that would make up his contribution to the landmark The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition.
Study for Still Glides the Stream embodies many of the characteristics of the 9 by 5 paintings, their freshness, spontaneity and clarity. The compact and economical character of many of these smaller paintings, their lyricism and emphasis on mood suggest poetry. In his the larger paintings the term epic might be a more apt literary reference.
The literary flavour of the art produced at this time pervades much of Streetons work. The paintings original title,
An Australian Gloaming, was changed to refer to a sonnet by the poet Wordsworth.

I thought of Thee, my partner and my guide,
As being past away.--Vain sympathies!
For, backward, Duddon! as I cast my eyes,
I see what was, and is, and will abide;
Still glides the Stream, and shall for ever glide;
The Form remains, the Function never dies;
While we, the brave, the mighty, and the wise,
We Men, who in our morn of youth defied
The elements, must vanish;--be it so!
Enough, if something from our hands have power
To live, and act, and serve the future hour;
And if, as toward the silent tomb we go,
Through love, through hope,
and faiths transcendent dower,
We feel that we are greater than we know.3

The revised title places a quite different slant on the painting, especially since We Men (line 8) can be seen as corresponds to Streeton, and his friends conscious ambition to present their Art at the highest level. Streeton doubtlessly saw his painting could be something from our hands (with) power To Live and act and serve the future hours (line 10) a premonition of the fame that it duly earned. The self-belief and confidence that Streeton possessed at the time was borne out by the paintings he produced at Heidelberg.

The final version of the painting was Streetons most successful painting to date, and when it was acquired by The Art Gallery of New South Wales, it became an important monument of Australian Art. It was the first painting by Streeton to enter a public collection and it has become one of the artists best known works. The 85 Guineas it earned Streeton enabled him to move to Sydney and therefore it marks the moment when Streeton was changed from being a graduate-student to a master and a national figure.

1. Clark, J., and Whitelaw, B., Golden Summers- Heidelberg and Beyond, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne, 1985
2. Croll, R.H., Tom Roberts Father of Australian Landscape Painting, Robertson & Mullins Limited, Melbourne, 1935 p.16
3. After Thought, from Sonnets from the River Duddon, written by William Wordsworth (1770-1850) first published in 1820

Staff Writer

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