Tom ROBERTS: worthy „Australian“ images, but sad he missed the Modern?


Thomas William (Tom) ROBERTS (march 1856 – sep. 1931, 75, active ~ 40 years, ~ 1880-1920)


A much lauded Anglo-Australian painter (who was unsure which came first).

Left us some „iconic“, „national“ paintings from his purple patch of only 10 years, c1885-95.

Striking and historically important images saluting the burgeoning colonies.

A worthy painter but basically also a dull painter?

Seems sad this talented artist never really engaged the Modern?

Stayed largely unscathed by the then rampaging Modern, the greatest ever upheaval in Western art!                                                        

FEATURED IMAGE: 1904, The Towpath, Putney, oil on board, 24.2 x 39.5cm, Private collection.

Comment: Who would have thought? After his big mid-career effort in Australia painting major scenes from life in the prospering colonies, back in London from 1903, where he had trained in the early 1880s, he now ironically moved closer to mainstream French Impressionism, in two works of the Thames near Putney, close to Battersea which his past acquaintance, the accomplished and pioneering American James McNeil Whistler had celebrated.


   James McNeil Whistler:

1872-78, Nocturne, Blue and Silver, Battersea Reach, oil on canvas, Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut

1872, Nocturne: Blue and Gold – Old Battersea Bridge, Tate Britain;



  • Check out the man’s dates: active c1880-1920! And then his oeuvre. And you’d hardly know he lived and painted through the greatest ever upheaval in Western art.
  • Thus he trained 3 years in London, 1881-84 (visited Paris, knew and travelled with John Peter Russell), and returned for 13 years, 1903-19, ie during the rolling explosion of the Fauves, Cubism, and Abstraction; coinciding in London with Roger Fry’s famous shows and the important English Modern revolt by Wyndham Lewis, David Bomberg etc.
  • Thus the great Modern art revolution largely passed him by? Look at the last two paintings shown below! Lake Como (1920) and self portrait (1924!
  • And it now seems somewhat sad this obviously talented painter never lost his conservative roots, never really engaged the Modern? Though Roberts painting style was nudged by the Modern, and though he depicted contemporary life, he was not really an „Impressionist“, not a Modernist.
  • Though his subjects were in some sense „modern“, from contemporary life, his painting style remained basically conservative, conventional. Thus he was basically influenced by the Naturalism school which he encountered in France 1883 through Jules Bastien-Lepage and which followed in the Realist tradition of the earlier Barbizon (c1830-70).
  • He admired Whistler (who he met in London) and Manet, but little their pioneering flare or imagination rubbed off. We see little or no impact from Japonism, Neo-Impressionism (Seurat etc) or Post-Impressionism (Bernard, Gauguin, Van Gogh etc).
  • He is understandably lauded in Australia for a sequence of striking paintings remarking on, celebrating life and times in the burgeoning Australian colonies, particularly NSW.
  • Within his conservative boundaries he was a very capable painter who also related well to his fellow artists, the „Australian Impressionists“: McCubbin, about his age, and the younger Streeton and Conder. They nick-named him ‘Bulldog’ for his “tenacious personality”. Within this group though Charles Conder was a more imaginative painter? Conder died much younger but showed early brilliance and more variety later.
  • For a man who died in his mid 70s Roberts peak period was short? Only about 15 years, c1885-1900? So after his big parliament painting (finished 1903) his brushes added nothing much for nearly 30 years, as the Modern art upheaval raged on..
  • He was very much an Anglo-Australian, a leg firmly in each domain. He did not arrive Australia till 13, trained back in England for about 4 years from age 25, then lived back there 16 years from age 47 (1903-19).
  • But he probably preferred Australia, where he was a much bigger fish in a smaller pond, and where he clearly made a mark? On the other hand he was unsettled back in England, achieved little there in through his painting, and was quite out of step with the then avant-garde.



  • Striking it is how Tom Roberts lived and painted alongside the heart of the Modern art revolution, was exposed to it in London and Europe, met people there like John Peter Russell, but the eruption of Modernism pretty much passed him by!
  • Roberts is probably the most important of the Australian „Impressionists“. He was they say an inspiring leader of the group, keenly promoting en plein air And his major works are justly admired. But while they were bold in some respects for their time they now look conventional, and are way out of contact with the then European avant-garde.
  • Fellow Australian „Impressionist“, the younger Charles Conder was a more interesting and imaginative painter than Roberts? And later Roberts was overshadowed by the younger Arthur Streeton, for his big „blue and gold landscapes“. Later in his life he drifted off into comparative obscurity.
  • He is called an „Australian Impressionist“, but „Australian Impressionism“ seems a misleading category? Thus it did not relate to French Impressionism as much as it did to (French) „Naturalism“, especially through Jules Bastien-Lepage, who Roberts met Paris and who was popular there. More so then than Monet, Pissarro et al. By contrast with the French Impressionists Naturalism was a tame strand of Realism relating directly back to to the Barbizon School (c1830-70), ie to Millet (1814-75), Corot (1796-1875), and Courbet (1819-77).
  • Thus 1883 Roberts met fellow art students Lorreano Barrau and Ramon Casas, studying in Paris with (Academician!) Jean Leon Gérôme (1824–1904) and Carolus–Duran (1837–1918, who apparently told to him of „Impressionism“!? Thus Casas talked of Gérôme’s idea that ‘the first thing to look for’ in painting was ‘the general impression of colour’. But as John McDonald (12th Dec 2015) explains „It was a strangely distorted viewthat saw arch-academic Jean-Leon Gerome​ as a high priest of plein air painting. Nevertheless, the main tenets came through clearly: making light the chief subject of a picture, and the need to record one’s impressions in a quick, spontaneous manner.”
  • So it was not really Impressionism they talked of, rather Naturalism, per Jules Bastien–Lepage, who Roberts met and was impressed by. The now big names like Monet apparently passed him by. Other followers of Bastien–Lepage, included the Newlyn School, Cornwall in England.
  • Roberts was influenced too by Velázquez, Manet and Whistler, and hence Aestheticism. But his response to Manet and Whistler seems timid?
  • Roberts matters most as the main painter in the new Colonial school in Australia (or rather the colonies, for Australia was not a political entity till 1901), painting the life and times. He was „a vocal advocate for ‘national’ subject matter, he produced many iconic artworks of rural labour and the light and atmosphere of the bush” (AG NSW).
  • His work comprised: 1/ landscapes; and figurative genre landscapes; 2/ city scapes; and 3/ portraits, many, to make money, and was a very competent and popular portraitist, if, again, conventional.
  • His peak period (1885-1900) was short, when he produced his iconic great „national“ paintings, celebrating (mainly) the vibrant colony of NSW, like its buoyant wool industry in Shearing the Rams (1890), showing working country people. Interesting is how this painting was criticised then for being too real, not „high art“. It appears now it was painted mostly on site, ie En plein air. It was painted too about a century after colonisation started, and was intended to salute a key industry of the colony, and its workers.
  • A break away! (1891) and the now much regarded Bailed Up (1895) show other sides of country life! Bailed Up is also a great and careful figurative composition
  • Allegro Con Brio, Bourke Street West (c.1885-86/1890) was one of first “urban” paintings in Australia. The music reference alludes to Whistler, but the image, while admirable, only barely? Coming South (1885–86) is another fine figurative genre painting – if again conventional – of another important aspect of the colonies: immigration, the arrival of new settlers.
  • Finally he worked hard over a number of years on what is now called The Big Picture (1903), for the opening of Australia’s first Parliament, and in which he used extensively his portrait skills.
  • And that was about it! Except curiously, from 1904 and beyond, while the art revolution raged on in France, he did wander back and execute some appealing looser Impressionistic paintings, of the Thames in London.
  • Then his final image here, a small painting called (ironically!) Sunrise, from 1929, sits way out by itself, for brilliant colour and a layered quasi-abstract composition.



  • Roberts was born Dorset, migrated to Australia 1869 (age 13) to stay with relatives, in Collingwood, Melbourne. He worked as a a photographer‘s assistant (novel then!), studied art in the evenings, eg under Louis Buvelot, who early saw his promise. He met Fred McCubbin at the National Gallery School, and trained 1877-79 under Eugene von Guerard.
  • He returned Europe for around 4 years, Jan. 1881-early 1885 (age 25-28), to London, full time at the Royal Academy Schools (did not learn much there?!). and visited Paris, „absorbed the progressive influence of painters Jules Bastien-Lepage and James Abbott McNeill Whistler.” (AG NSW).
  • He toured Spain (Aug.1883), walking, with Australian artist John Peter Russell, met Barrau and Casas, and saw works of Murillo (1617–82) and Velázquez (1599–1660), both of whom he admired.
  • He also visited Venice (1884) and Paris (briefly, Feb.1885) where he studied at Academie Julian with Academic, Jean-Leon Gérôme.
  • Back in Australia, from 1885 he worked in Melbourne, at Grosvenor Chambers (from April 1888), helped organise many artists camps, eg Box Hill and Heidelberg, with other artists, in Melbourne and Sydney.
  • He visited Sydney in 1888, meeting Charles Conder, who he attracted him to Melbourne. He returned Sydney from Sep. 1891, with Arthur Streeton, then travelled extensively in New South Wales and Queensland, including a sailing trip from Sydney to Cape York, on a ketch, July 1892.
  • His increasingly large-scale paintings paid homage to rural life and the pastoral industry. And to humour! Anecdotes. Eg many illustrated on cigar box lid paintings, 9 x 5 inces, eg for the important9 by 5 Impression“ Exhibition in Melbourne, August 1889, where Roberts showed62 works, one of 7 artists.
  • In 1896 he married Elizabeth (Lillie), who inherited money. His wife was an „expert“making picture frames, helping their income esp 1903-14.
  • April 1898, he showed 13 works in ‘Exhibition of Australian Art in London’.
  • He was commissioned to paint the opening of the first Federal Parliament of Australia, in Melbourne in 1901. Dubbed ‘the big picture’, the painting was completed in London in 1903. “The Big Picture’ seems to have drained Roberts of much of his inspiration and energy, and with the onset of eye trouble, he entered what has been described as his ‘black period’ “. (McKenzie).
  • Between 1903 and 1914, Roberts sold few works, and relied heavily on commissions for portraits.” He travelled to Belgium, the Netherlands and Italy and had some success at the Royal Academy of Arts in London. During WW1 he spent about 4 years working at a hospital at Wandsworth, and painted little.
  • Roberts returned to Australia in 1919, went back a third and final time to London 1921 to 1923, then settled at Kallista in Dandenongs. Lillie died January 1928 and he remarried that year.


Current exhibition



UNTIL MARCH 28, 2016


Certain works by Tom Roberts………



1884, Fog, Thames Embankment  



1887, Slumbering sea Mentone, oil on canvas, 51.3 x 76 cm, National Gallery of Victoria


1 roberts_skcoogee

1888, Holiday sketch at Coogee, oil on canvas, 40.3 x 55.9 cm Art Gallery of New South Wales



1894, Mosman’s Bay, New England Regional Art Museum



1889, Evening train to Hawthorn, oil on board, 14 x 22.6 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales.



c.1885-86/1890, Allegro Con Brio, Bourke Street West, oil on canvas, 51.2 x 76.7 cm, National Gallery of Australia



1890, Shearing the rams, oil on canvas on composition board, 122.4 x 183.3 cm National Gallery of Victoria.



1891, A break away, oil on canvas, 137.3 x 167.8 cm, Art Gallery of South Australia



1885–86, Coming South, oil on canvas, 63.5 x 50.2 cm, National Gallery of Victoria                


1895, In a corner on the Macintyre (The bushranger), National Gallery of Australia



1887-88, ‘Evening, when the quiet east flushes faintly at the sun’s last look’, oil on canvas, 50.8 x 76.4 cm, National Gallery of Victoria


      1895, Bailed up, oil on canvas, 134.5 x 182.8 cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales

w25 big pic

1903 The Big Picture, oil on canvas, opening-of-Parliament, Australia, 9 May 1901, Melbourne, Royal Exhibition Building, oil on cnvs, 3.0x 5.1m, Parliament House, Canberra


w22 put bridge

1905-08, Putney Bridge, London, oil on panel, 34.4 x 44cm, Art Gallery of New South Wales


w24 s at sea

1907, Storm at sea, Art Gallery of New South Wales



1922, Lake Como, National Gallery of Victoria

w21 c scape

1923, Cloudscape, oil on board? Collection?



1924, Self portrait


w20 sunrise

1929, Sunrise, oil on panel, 10 x 24.5cm, Art Gallery of South Australia


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