The Monets and Cézannes of the Northern Beaches
By Claire Ollivain
When we think of Impressionism we usually think of French Impressionists – household names like Monet, Renoir, Cézanne and Degas. But the artistic movement that popularised painting en plein air (in the open air), with bright, evocative colours and loose, painterly strokes, was exported across the world with modernity and changed the tide of Australian art.
Drawn to the coastal scenes, bush and light of Sydney’s Northern Beaches, some Australian Impressionist and Post-Impressionist artists settled in Dee Why and surrounding suburbs in the early 1900s. While most people lived in cities by this time, art and literature in colonial Australia looked to the rural landscape in search of a national identity and mythology.
Crafting images of sunlit beaches and coastal bushland was one way Australian Impressionists distinguished themselves from the images their earlier French counterparts created of city boulevards and industrial ports.
Born in Melbourne, but trained in England and Paris, James Lawson Balfour (1870-1966) was one of the first of these artists who moved to Dee Why for artistic inspiration. His painting Sea and Rocks, Dee Why depicts two young women standing on the rocky shore watching light blue waves crashing and forming a pool. It is a peaceful and idyllic scene, with soft pastel colours and visible brushstrokes evoking an impression of the light and atmosphere.
Balfour socialised with James Muir Auld (1879-1942), another artist who settled in Dee Why in the 1910s. Trained under Julian Ashton, Auld exhibited with the Royal Art Society and some of his artworks such as Broken Vase are in the Art Gallery of NSW collection. When Auld became infected with tuberculosis later in life, he had to leave Dee Why for Thirlmere on medical advice. During this period, he painted Winter Morning, which was awarded the prestigious 1935 Wynne Prize for landscape painting.
Another associate of the Impressionists who lived in Dee Why and moved around Northern Sydney was Roland Wakelin (1887-1971). His bold experimental style was inspired by Cézanne and ideas about the relationship between colour and music. Encouraged by his teacher Antonio Dattilo Rubbo, Wakelin’s abstract works of the harbour and cityscape caused controversy among conservative landscape artists. It is said that Rubbo once challenged a Royal Art Society committee member to a duel because he refused to hang Wakelin’s painting Down the hills to Berry’s Bay.
Today, however, the Impressionists and post-Impressionists are freely hung up on walls, appreciated as an important turning point in Australian modernist art. Their dazzling images continue to remind us of the beautiful light and colour of Sydney’s coastline today.