The Heidelberg School was an Australian art movement of the late 19th century. The movement has latterly been described as Australian Impressionism.
Melbourne art critic Sidney Dickinson coined the term in a July 1891 review of works by Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers. He noted that these and other local artists, who painted en plein air in Heidelberg on the city's outskirts, could be considered members of the "Heidelberg School". The term has since evolved to cover painters who worked together at "artists' camps" around Melbourne and Sydney in the 1880s and 1890s. Along with Streeton and Withers, Tom Roberts, Charles Conder and Frederick McCubbin are considered key figures of the movement. Drawing on naturalist and impressionist ideas, they sought to capture Australian life, the bush, and the harsh sunlight that typifies the country.
An effect is only momentary: so an impressionist tries to find his place. Two half-hours are never alike, and he who tries to paint a sunset on two successive evenings, must be more or less painting from memory. So, in these works, it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character.
The exhibition caused a stir in Melbourne with many of the city's leading social, intellectual and political figures attending during its three-week run. The general public responded positively, and within two weeks of the exhibition's opening, most of the 9 by 5s had sold. The response from critics, however, was mixed. The most scathing review came from James Smith, then Australia's most prominent art critic, who said the 9 by 5s were "destitute of all sense of the beautiful" and "whatever influence [the exhibition] was likely to exercise could scarcely be otherwise than misleading and pernicious." The artists pinned the review to the entrance of the venue—attracting many more passing pedestrians to, in Streeton's words, "see the dreadful paintings"—and responded with a letter to the Editor of Smith's newspaper, The Argus. Described as a manifesto, the letter defends freedom of choice in subject and technique, concluding:
It is better to give our own idea than to get a merely superficial effect, which is apt to be a repetition of what others have done before us, and may shelter us in a safe mediocrity, which, while it will not attract condemnation, could never help towards the development of what we believe will be a great school of painting in Australia.
The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition is now regarded as a landmark event in Australian art history. Approximately one-third of the 9 by 5s are known to have survived, many of which are held in Australia's public collections, and have sold at auction for prices exceeding $1,000,000.
Charles Conder, Centennial Choir at Sorrento, 1889
Charles Conder, Going Home, 1889
Tom Roberts, Saplings, 1889
Tom Roberts, The Violin Lesson, 1889
Arthur Streeton, Impression for Golden Summer, 1888
Opened at 9 Collins Street in April 1888, Grosvenor Chambers, built "expressly for occupation by artists", quickly became the focal point of Melbourne's art scene, and an urban base from which members of the Heidelberg School could meet the booming city's demand for portraits. Tom Roberts, Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern were the first to occupy studios in the building, and were soon followed by Charles Conder and Louis Abrahams.
Roberts first visited Sydney in 1887. There, he met the young Conder, and a strong artistic friendship blossomed. The pair painted together at the beachside suburb of Coogee in early 1888 before Conder joined Roberts on his return trip to Melbourne.
When a severe economic depression hit Melbourne in 1890, Roberts and Streeton moved to Sydney, first setting up camp at Mosman Bay, a small cove of the harbour, before finally settling around the corner at Curlew Camp, which was accessible by the Mosman ferry. Other plen air painters occasionally joined them at Curlew, including prominent art teacher and Heidelberg School supporter Julian Ashton, who resided nearby at the Balmoral artists' camp. Ashton had earlier painted with Conder during the latter's Sydney days, and in 1890, as a trustee of the National Gallery of New South Wales in Sydney, he encouraged the art museum to purchase Streeton's Heidelberg landscape ′Still glides the stream, and shall for ever glide′ (1890)—the first painting by the artist to enter a public gallery. The more sympathetic patronage shown by Ashton and others in Sydney inspired other Melbourne artists to join them.
Sydney became Streeton's subject. The bravura of his crisp brushwork and his trademark blue, the blue that he had used at Heidelberg, were perfectly suited to registering images of the bustling activity on Sydney's blue harbour.
From Sydney, Streeton and Roberts branched out into country New South Wales, where, in the early 1890s, they painted some of their most celebrated works.