She-Oak and Sunlight: women of Australian Impressionism emerge from the shadows

About one third of the way into She-Oak and Sunlight, there is a room off to one side filled with images so vibrant, so unexpected, it throws me completely.

All of the pictures in it are small – they’re referred to as the 9 by 5s due to the size, in inches, of the panels they’re painted on – many of them on the lids of cigar boxes. This is as close as any of us will ever come to attending the original 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in 1889, with over 50 of those 182 works brought back together by NGV Australia and displayed almost as they were when they first were shown to the public.

There’s the picture that gives the exhibition its name: a soft, surreal-yet-familiar rendering of trees on a golden landscape. A dark-haired girl hunched over a book. A man in a long jacket, mid-step, who looks like he’s been caught off-guard. There are dreamy images of both country and city. Trees draped over lonely figures. Statues. A baby dressed in bright blue. Moments captured in paint. I expected an exhibition of Australian Impressionism to be predominantly pictures of men sitting on logs, landscapes upon landscapes, and there are plenty of both – but She-Oak and Sunlight puts these in a larger context. No matter what they depict, whether it’s two boys playing violin or a country field in peaceful twilight, the images are imbued with emotion. These are fleeting moments that we feel lucky now to see.

“It’s about capturing an experience of being in a place,” says Angela Hesson, NGV’s curator of Australian painting, sculpture and decorative arts to 1980. The exact definition of Australian Impressionism can be difficult to nail down, she clarifies – the work produced during the period between 1883 and 1895 was diverse, and often deviated from the loose rules the artists set themselves – but NGV Australia’s new exhibition attempts to represent the breadth of that diversity.

Hesson quotes the catalogue put out by the artists of the 9 by 5 exhibition: “An effect is only momentary; so an impressionist tries to find his place.” She pauses, then repeats back a word. “His … curious, but anyway.”

It’s difficult, over 100 years later, to think of such familiar images as revolutionary or rebellious, but that’s exactly what Australian Impressionism was. “Impressionism generally was criticised for what was perceived as a lack of discipline and a lack of technique – Impressionist artists were accused of kind of lazily exhibiting sketches,” says Hesson. “And women were particularly subject to those kinds of criticisms.”

The main tale of She-Oak and Sunlight is of four leading figures of the movement in Australia: Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder. It starts off with a wall of pictures of artists as illustrated either by themselves or by fellow artists, and draws out connections from there: letters they wrote to each other; influences. One wall shows the same scene painted years apart from two different artists’ perspectives. Two violent seascapes, one by Claude Monet and one by John Russell, are placed side by side, each distinct and yet almost mirrored, showing how the friendship between the two men influenced each other’s work.

While their stories are interesting in both how they evolve and intertwine, NGV has also newly acquired works by artists Iso Rae, May Vale, Jane Price and Ina Gregory – and it’s the lesser-known works by the women who painted alongside the now-famous men that allow the exhibition to tell a fuller story.

“This isn’t specific to Impressionism,” Hesson explains. “This is a much broader art history problem … women are underrepresented in our collection, and in most collections – and so we have been looking wherever possible to rectify that.”

Despite many women painters being involved in Impressionism at the time, none of the original 9 by 5 works were by women. The lack of representation is multifactorial. “There was a strong network of mutual support among all the artists, so I think it was really a mark of much broader gender politics of the period,” says Hesson.

Women were held to different standards from their male counterparts. “The first solo exhibition of Ina Gregory’s work, for example, was compared to a shopkeeper’s window,” Hesson explains. “The reviewer said that [Gregory] didn’t know how to edit her work – so there’s this idea that a lack of discipline is potentially gendered.”

There was also the pressure to marry, and the idea that for women especially, art should be a hobby, not a living. “Even the fact that, for example, women couldn’t stay overnight at artists camps, completely changes their capacity to immerse themselves in those kinds of landscapes,” says Hesson.

Despite the challenges, the quality of the women’s work is clear; hung alongside the paintings of their male counterparts they easily hold their own – though there are some key and consistent differences.

One of the rooms features two images of women artists at work, side by side – one painted by a male artist and one by a female artist. Both are candid and intimate; they feel like photographs taken without the subjects’ knowledge. The quality of the work is the same – but the difference in their size is striking. In E Phillips Fox’s painting, the figures are almost life-size. Ina Gregory’s, by comparison, is tiny; the entirety of her painting is about the same size as the paint palette depicted in her male counterpart’s work.

“A lot of the women from this period are painting on a smaller scale,” says Hesson. For female Impressionists we see “very few large-scale works, in part because they often didn’t have the commercial success of their male counterparts, and artists’ materials were expensive.”

Even though they often sold their work for 10% of what their male counterparts received, even though their works are often literally smaller, they kept creating – and now those works are being appreciated and included.

This fuller picture of Australian Impressionism will feed directly into the NGV’s Winter Masterpieces exhibition, which focuses on French Impressionism. She-Oak and Sunlight is all about relationships, both local and international.

It’s easy to think of eras that have passed out of living memory as static, even stuffy, but She-Oak and Sunlight challenges the legacy of Impressionist exhibitions that have come before by both filling in the gaps and providing deeper context. On its most simple level, it offers a warm, candid and colourful glimpse into a time that we often think of in black and white.

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