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Streeton, Sir Arthur Ernest (1867–1943)

by Ann E. Galbally

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943), by John Longstaff, c1912

Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943), by John Longstaff, c1912

National Library of Australia, nla.pic-an21726482

Sir Arthur Ernest Streeton (1867-1943), artist, was born on 8 April 1867 at Duneed, Victoria, fourth of five children of Charles Henry Streeton, schoolteacher, and his wife Mary, née Johnson, whom Charles had met on his voyage from England in 1854 and married in 1857 on his appointment to Queenscliff. The family moved to Melbourne in 1874 when Charles joined the administrative staff of the Education Department. They settled at Richmond and Arthur attended the Punt Road State School until 1880 when he became a junior clerk in the office of Rolfe & Co., importers, of Bourke Street.

As a child Arthur liked to draw and sketch in water-colour. He enrolled in night classes at the National Gallery of Victoria School of Design in 1882-87 and in 1886 his skill at sketching led to his being apprenticed as a lithographer to Charles Troedel & Co., of Collins Street. Streeton's first independently published black-and-white work, 'His First Snake', appeared in the Australasian Sketcher of 24 January 1889. He had no formal instruction in painting; his earliest extant oils date from 1884 and at this stage he was largely self-taught; he used such manuals as William Morris Hunt's Talks About Art (1877) which urged the emulation of plein air French painters Jean Millet and Camille Corot. Inspired by his reading, Streeton wrote to the compiler of Hunt's book for photographs of Corot's work.

In the summer of 1886 Streeton met Tom Roberts at Mentone. Seeing his work 'full of light and air', Roberts asked him to join a painting group which included Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams. In their company Streeton continued to work on the problems of light and heat and space and distance which had already absorbed him. With the sale of 'Settler's Camp' and 'Pastoral', both exhibited with the Victorian Artists' Society in 1888, he was able to paint full time: for the next two years he worked at Box Hill and Heidelberg with his artist friends who now included Charles Conder, and also in the city where he did portraits and studies of the Yarra River and its bridges. A camp established at an old house at Eaglemont, overlooking the Yarra valley near Heidelberg, became the focus of their artistic fellowship. Streeton and Conder supplemented their income by giving painting lessons to young women; at weekends artists and students visited to paint and picnic beneath the pines.

On 17 August 1889 the Heidelberg painters opened their 9 x 5 (inches) Exhibition of Impressions at Buxton's Art Gallery, Melbourne. The exhibition was a statement of rebellion by young artists, influenced by international trends, against the prevailing academic tradition of Victorian painting. The 182 exhibits included forty by Streeton. Mostly painted on cedar cigar-box lids and hung among silks, they were Impressionist in the direct manner of painting and the study of momentary effects, while retaining the plein-airist tonal use of colour. The catalogue stated: 'An effect is only momentary: so an impressionist tries to find his place … So in these works, it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain first records of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character'. The exhibition won popular success, but provoked critical scorn, expressed most virulently by the influential Argus critic James Smith. Streeton, Roberts and Conder responded in a letter to the Argus, asserting: 'Any form of nature which moves us strongly by its beauty, whether strong or vague in its drawing, defined or undefinite in its light, rare or ordinary in its colour, is worthy of our best efforts'.

The camp broke up in January 1890; three months later Conder left Australia for Paris, taking with him Streeton's 'Golden Summer' (1889) which was exhibited at the Royal Academy of Arts in London in 1891, and hung on the line and awarded an honorable mention at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français, Paris, in 1892. Streeton, whose 'Still Glides the Stream and Shall for Ever Glide' (1890) had been acquired by the National Art Gallery of New South Wales, moved to Sydney. Julian Ashton saw him then as 'a slim, debonair young man … with a little gold pointed beard and fair complexion', who, when he was not painting, 'was quoting Keats and Shelley'. Streeton lived at 'Curlew Camp', Little Sirius Cove, Mosman, with Roberts and other impecunious artists, and painted a variety of harbour views, Coogee beach scenes, art-nouveau-inspired nudes and in 1893 two urban masterpieces, 'Circular Quay' and 'The Railway Station'. With Roberts he opened a teaching studio in Pitt Street.

In 1891 Streeton wrote to Roberts of his yearning to 'try something entirely new': 'to translate some of the great hidden poetry' of the immense, elemental outback. He travelled inland in New South Wales and painted directly in front of his subject, striving to capture—as he told Roberts—the 'great, gold plains', the 'hot, trying winds' and the 'slow, immense summer'. The paintings of this period, including 'Fire's On' (1891), are heroic landscapes which successfully balance bravura technique with real inspiration and feeling. His Hawkesbury River series (1896) is remarkable for the rendering of light, heat and distance. On the recommendation of John Mather the National Gallery of Victoria bought one, 'The Purple Noon's Transparent Might', shown at Streeton's first one-man Melbourne exhibition in December 1896.

After this success Streeton sailed for England, spending five months painting in Cairo en route. The early years in London were hard; he had few friends and felt none of the intuitive affinity with the English landscape that had inspired his Australian paintings. Homesick and nostalgic for his youth, he seems also to have suffered a time of artistic confusion. There was little interest in his work and little success at the major exhibiting venues, the Royal Academy and the New English Art Club. In 1906-07 he spent a year in Australia and had considerable acclaim with sales of his English and recent Australian work. G. W. Marshall-Hall and (Sir) Walter Baldwin Spencer were early patrons who became friends.

Returning to London, Streeton married Esther Leonora Clench, a Canadian violinist, on 11 January 1908 in the Marylebone register office. Apart from a visit home in 1913-14, he spent the years before World War I based in London whence he sent works for exhibition in Australia. During this period Streeton's art began to win recognition in England, France and at the international exhibitions held in the United States of America. His wife's extensive social contacts helped with commissions and Streeton's formerly rather reclusive personality had to respond to de rigueur 'country-house' weekends.

On 24 April 1915 Streeton enlisted as a private in the Australian Army Medical Corps and was posted to Wandsworth where he worked as an orderly for the next two years. Commissioned honorary lieutenant and appointed official war artist in 1918, he spent two periods in France documenting the Western Front for the Commonwealth government. In contrast to the Middle East paintings of George Lambert, Streeton concentrated on the landscape of war; his paintings show the desolation of the terrain, but none of the tragedy or drama of human suffering. As throughout his career, landscape views rather than figure-painting remained the core of his art. In July 1919 at the Alpine Club, London, he showed a series of war paintings entitled 'With Australians on the Somme'. His best water-colours recall his early work in their immediacy and delicate portrayal of light.

After the war Streeton and his family visited Australia. In 1922 they returned to London, via St Mary's, Ontario, Canada, where Nora Streeton's mother lived. Streeton's paintings of Canada were exhibited at the Montross Gallery, New York, in January 1923, but they aroused little interest in spite of a warm press reception. That year he returned to Victoria where he bought a home at Toorak and built a cottage at Olinda in the Dandenong Ranges. He made painting trips to many Australian sites and in 1928 was awarded the Wynne prize for landscape for 'Afternoon Light: the Goulburn Valley'.

In his later years Streeton became a national institution. He continued to paint sunny, pastoral landscapes, but many were mannered, fluent and facile, and devoid of the inspiration of his radical early work. Leading critics, particularly J. S. MacDonald and Lionel Lindsay, extolled his art which—with that of Roberts and McCubbin—was to some extent appropriated by the art establishment in the cause of a conservative, isolationist nationalism. Most responded to the optimism of Streeton's romantic blue and gold vision of a pastoral Australia. William Blamire Young was one of the few to contrast unfavourably Streeton's later canvases with the small 'gem-like' pictures of his early years. Reviewing a retrospective exhibition in 1933, he wrote that 'in many cases the poet has been over-powered by the technician'. As art critic for the Argus from 1929, Streeton himself became a tastemaker; although an early supporter of Hans Heysen and Norman Lindsay, he was not receptive to modern art. He frequently wrote in the press on art, the environment and public affairs. At the same time he embellished and consolidated the Streeton legend, writing his interpretation of the history of Australian painting, organizing his own numerous exhibitions and producing the Arthur Streeton Catalogue (1935). In 1937 he was knighted.

After his wife's death in 1938, Streeton retired to Olinda and devoted much of his time to his garden. He died there on 1 September 1943, having been received into the Catholic faith during his last long illness, and was buried in Ferntree Gully cemetery. His son survived him.

Widely read in English literature and poetry, Streeton was a Romantic. His love of music formed a great bond with his wife. Artistically he always preferred the tonal landscapes of the French plein air movement of the 1870s and late-Victorian Romantic landscapists like Alfred East. In the twentieth century he showed little interest in avant-garde art, believing to the end in the values of sound drawing and tonally orchestrated colour. He was of medium height and slightly built. Roberts's portrait, 'Smike Streeton, age 24' (1891), shows a fine-featured profile, wide, expressive, dark eyes, brown hair, a gold-tinged moustache and beard, and an eager, boyish expression. It is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales, as is a self-portrait, presented in 1924.

Select Bibliography

  • Smike to Bulldog—Letters from Sir Arthur Streeton to Tom Roberts, R. H. Croll ed (Syd, 1946)
  • B. Smith, Australian Painting 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • A. Galbally, Arthur Streeton (Melb, 1979)
  • G. Serle, From Deserts the Prophets Come (Melb, 1973)
  • Art in Australia, no 2, 1915, no 16, 1926
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 10, no 2, 1951
  • Streeton papers (Australian War Memorial)
  • Roberts papers (State Library of New South Wales).

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Citation details

Ann E. Galbally, 'Streeton, Sir Arthur Ernest (1867–1943)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/streeton-sir-arthur-ernest-8697/text15219, published first in hardcopy 1990, accessed online 18 December 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 12, (MUP), 1990

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