I’ve now been 3 times to the Eugene von Guérard exhibition, Nature Revealed, at the Queensland Art Gallery, partly because it’s free, I admit, but mostly because it’s so compelling. It finishes on 5 March, so if you live in Brisbane, hurry. And, if you’re my age, bring your reading glasses.
Everyone brought up in Australia knows a few von Guérard paintings, even if they don’t know that they know them. He is widely represented in the National Gallery of Victoria, where he was curator from 1870, and the National Gallery of Australia, and in other galleries, particularly in Victoria where he did most of his work.
He painted landscapes: flat plains, the strange mountain formations of the volcanic Western District, or the dark and claustrophobic forests of the Dandenong Ranges. The action often takes place in a shadowy foreground, while the background glows in the sunshine.
I already knew many of his paintings from books, but I have seldom experienced before so sharply the need to see the original rather than rely on reproductions, because no matter how large the canvas, or the subject matter, von Guérard seems to have approached his painting with the eye – and the brush – of a miniaturist. Every inch of his paintings is shown with painstaking accuracy: a huge picture of volcanic Tower Hill includes a flock of black swans swimming on the crater lake; Fern Tree Gulley in the Dandenongs contains a second lyrebird I didn’t know about, almost invisible on a fallen log.
Eugene von Guérard was born in Vienna in 1812 where his father Bernhard was a painter at the imperial court. Then, when Eugene was in his early teens, Bernhard left his wife and took his son to Italy. One of the delights of this exhibition is that it includes a number of paintings, drawings and sketchbooks from this Italian tour, which are still in private (presumably family) hands. They settled in Naples, but Bernhard died in a cholera epidemic, and Eugene returned north to study art in Dusseldorf.
These were years of dramatic change, political, scientific, cultural, culminating in the revolutions that swept across much of Europe during 1848. In Vienna and Berlin, the old order was temporarily swept aside – but then came back with, literally, a vengeance.
Many young men left Germany in the wake of these political crises, and perhaps Eugene did too. There’s a gap from 1848 onwards when not much is known about his movements. He may have gone to the Californian gold rush, just as the Victorian gold rush lured him there in 1852. He didn’t find a fortune digging on the gold fields, but he certainly appreciated the greater political liberty he found in the Australian colonies.
He produced a few paintings on the diggings, but he really hit his straps after the gold rush. To make a living, he painted the rural properties of the pastoral elite in wonderful ‘estate portraits’ that are really detailed inventories of their possessions. For his own satisfaction, I assume, he painted landscapes, with or without an Aboriginal presence, which recorded Australia as it might have been before European settlement.
The exhibition puts von Guérard’s Australian paintings in a wider context of 19th century landscape and the study of nature. It stresses his interest in science, particularly his interest in the work of the German naturalist and explorer Alexander von Humboldt (1769-1859).
Von Guérard painted like a romantic, but he observed like a scientist. Recently Parks Victoria has revegetated Tower Hill, which had been badly degraded by settlement. To guide them in their plantings, they used Eugene von Guérard’s painting of the landscape as it was in 1855.