Turner to Monet
Roberts’s return to Melbourne in 1885, after four years’ study in Europe, marked the end of his long artistic apprenticeship. By the age of twenty-nine he had developed a sophisticated eye and an exceptional technical facility that enabled him to capture the appearance of things. He was also a proselytiser and, back home, looked up his old friend Frederick McCubbin (1855–1917) and enthused him about the European style of plein-air painting. Together they established a weekend painting camp on Houston’s Farm at Box Hill, some sixteen kilometres from the city. It was a primitive approximation to the artists’ colonies of Europe and America, but quickly became a hub of the new painting in Melbourne. Many of the first great works of the Australian Impressionist movement were painted there, in or near the patch of remnant bushland on Gardiners Creek where the camp was located. Paintings such as McCubbin’s Lost1and Roberts’s own A summer morning tiff2 and Wood splitters3captured the intimacy and patchy sunlight of the site.
Roberts’s ’Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’ was painted on the hillside above the camp and is more panoramic in format than the other early Box Hill views. It is also a nocturne – a type of twilight or evening subject that was still something of a novelty in late 1880s Melbourne. Streeton, who joined the group in 1887, recalled:
We tried painting the sunset with somewhat conventional and melodramatic results. Roberts pointed to the evening sky in the east, and showed us the beauty of its subtle greys, and the delicate flush of the afterglow, when the shadow of the earth upon its atmosphere, resembling a curved band of cool grey, rises up, and succeeds the rosy warmth as the sun descends further below the western horizon. He was the first artist in Australia to notice it, and to point it out to the native-born.4
Roberts’s painting skills enabled him to capture rapidly the topography of the valley of Gardiners Creek and the view to the Dandenongs. The facture is suggestive rather than descriptive, with a definite drift towards abstraction, particularly in the adjustments made in the studio to the foreground and other areas. Atmosphere was also important, and Roberts succeeded brilliantly in capturing le moment crepusculaire, the stillness of dusk. The only movement is a bird wheeling in from the left, and a waft of smoke rising from a field.
’Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’ is a national picture, in that its subtext is the claiming and clearing of the land, one of the great themes of nineteenth-century Australian life. As such, it demands a place on Roberts’s list of national pictures, alongside such works as Coming South, Allegro con brio: Bourke Street West, The sunny South and Shearing the rams.5It is also his most poetic and elegiac landscape, Symbolist in its evocation of the slumbering land.
1 Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne.
2 Collection of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, Victoria.
3 Collection of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.
4 Argus (Melbourne), 21 June 1932, p. 8.
5 All collection of National Gallery of Victoria, except Allegro con brio: Bourke Street West.