Turner to Monet
Like Pissarro, in his series of Boulevard Montmartre paintings (cat. 83), the Australian Roberts drew inspiration from Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines 1873.1Although we cannot be certain whether, or when, Roberts saw Monet’s painting, the affinities between the works are compelling.2Monet’s, Roberts’s and Pissaro’s paintings all demonstrate a remarkable ability to capture the hustle and bustle of city life; they share an elevated viewpoint, reduced palette, and fractured brushstrokes. Moreover the three artists also embody a determination to embrace modernity: Paris after the Haussmann era, on the one hand, and the energy and excitement of ‘marvellous Melbourne’ on the other.
Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west is a lively composition, painted with spirit. The Italian part of the title is a musical term, a playing instruction meaning ‘quickly, with brilliance’. It is one of a group of works painted by Roberts on his return to Australia from London in 1885. Back in Melbourne he resumed his friendship with Frederick McCubbin, then with Streeton and Conder: they regularly painted together at Box Hill, en plein air. The Heidelberg School painters, as they were known collectively, were interested in instantaneous effects, in experimenting with a range of short, broken brushstrokes. Because their works so effectively convey Australian conditions of heat and light, they are regarded as the first home-grown movement.
Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west is structured around one of the ‘avenues’ crossing Melbourne’s central business district, at the intersection of Elizabeth and Bourke streets, on the Post Office corner. In the 1880s, as now, the west end of Bourke Steeet was a commercial zone. As McQueen points out, more than a third of the canvas is consumed by buildings.3Prominent signs announce businesses such as Booksellers Dunn & Collins, P. Philipson & Co. and John Danks. The smoke and haze in a clear blue sky, the contrast between the cream and tan exterior walls of the buildings with dark verandahs underneath, figures scurrying across the street or clustered in the shade, all make us aware of the uncomfortable heat. As if for emphasis, two carriages in the centre foreground seem to emerge from the dust. A row of cabs – cable trams were shortly to make horse-drawn vehicles redundant in much of the city – serves to highlight the recession of the street.
The word ‘ICE’ appears at the centre, on the side of a cart. At right is the tricoleur French flag; it sits almost at the same spot as a blossom-covered tree in the Boulevard des Capucines. Perhaps it is not too fanciful to imagine that Roberts left us some clues to his sources. Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west is a scene portrayed with much economy in parts, from grand, colonial-style buildings painted in blocks, to the squiggle of a tiny dog in a patch of sun at lower right. In his distinctly Australian portrait of a city that was one of the largest in the industrialised world at the time, Roberts was ‘painting with fire’.
1 One version of Monet’s Boulevard des Capucines was shown in the first Impressionist exhibition of 1874, the other at the Dowdeswell Gallery, London, in 1883. The paintings are in the Nelson-Atkins Museum of Art, Kansas City and the Pushkin Museum of Fine Arts, Moscow.
2 Although Allegro con brio: Bourke Street west is not dated, it is generally given to the years 1885–86, the revisions to 1890; Mary Eagle points out that Roberts sent four paintings to the 1886 Colonial and Indian Exhibition, London, but did not seem to have considered this work sufficiently resolved, or its perspective and drawing of an Academic standard, to include it; see Mary Eagle, The oil paintings of Tom Roberts in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1997, p. 28.
3 Humphrey McQueen, Tom Roberts, Sydney: Macmillan, 1996, see also ‘Tom Roberts: Allegro con brio, Bourke Street west’, viewed November 2007 http://home.alphalink.com.au/-log27/Roberts/roberts_allegro.htm