Turner to Monet
Von Guérard sailed into Milford Sound on the SS Otago on the evening of Monday 24 January 1876. The passengers on the eagerly anticipated four-and-a-half day voyage from Melbourne were not disappointed. Myriad waterfalls dashed down the steep sides of the granite peaks, following recent rain, and the clouds lifted to reveal Mitre Peak and Mt Pembroke – their towering forms reflected in the mirror-like surface of the fiord.
The Otago dropped anchor by Bowen Falls at 7 pm. Von Guérard ‘at once had himself conveyed to an island’ where he executed sketches, and three drawings documented with notes on colour and vegetation, before the midsummer sun finally set.1From his chosen viewpoint he developed a panoramic composition of a series of pyramidal forms that stretch across the canvas, rising above the line of the water and reflected in it. Through the power and austerity of the composition, von Guérard communicates the monumental scale and geological age of the dark, angular rocky peaks, the depths of the fiord and the haunting silence of the Sound. His own personal experience is registered in the vignette of tiny figures seen disembarking from their rowboat. Their exhilaration at finding themselves in a place described by a journalist on the Otago as ‘unsurpassed, if equalled, by any cynosure of beauty on the earth’s surface’, is palpable.2
The intensity of von Guérard’s response to Milford Sound was informed by his scientific interest in its geology and vegetation.3 Contemporary reviewers, such as the writer for the Argus, who referred to ‘the steamer, floating like a child’s toy at the foot of one of the “awful cliffs”’, responded to Milford Sound in terms of the British Sublime.4 The Sublime played a part in von Guérard’s vision, but a more revealing context for understanding his portrayal of the subject is the scientific and specifically geological direction taken by German landscape painting in the early nineteenth century. Carus, in his Nine letters on landscape painting, argued for a new type of landscape art, one that revealed the history of the Earth’s formation through a scientifically accurate portrayal of its geology. In Milford Sound von Guérard observed and portrayed the hard, erosion-resistant character of the granite, gneiss and diorite rock formations and the vertical ridges of their foliated geological structure. The glacier at the top of Mt Pembroke – a flash of white in a predominantly dark composition – is a reminder of the glacial activity that shaped this landscape over six million years ago.
Von Guérard’s New Zealand journey was the last of his many expeditions in the southern hemisphere. The two major works from this trip, Milford Sound and Lake Wakatipu with Mount Earnslaw, Middle Island, New Zealand 1877–79, were immediately acclaimed by contemporary reviewers.5Milford Sound was exhibited at the Exposition Universelle de Paris in 1878, and won a ‘First degree of Merit Special for Landscape Painting’ at the Sydney International Exhibition in 1879.
1 ‘The Otago’s Trip to Milford Sound’, Otago Witness, Issue 1262, 5 February 1876, p. 7.
2 Otago Witness, p. 7.
3 Von Guérard’s scientific accuracy is also evident in his portrayal of the plants found at Milford Sound. It is probable that the feathery flowered grasses in the foreground are the species richardii, a member of the Cortaderia genus. It is known by the Maori as toe toe. My thanks to Richard Neville, Conservation Botanist, Royal Botanic Gardens, Melbourne, for identifying this plant species.
4 Argus (Melbourne), 2 January 1877, p. 4.
5 Collection of the Auckland Art Gallery Toi o Tamaki.