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Duncan Max Meldrum (1875–1955)

by Joyce McGrath and Bernard Smith

This article was published:

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), by unknown photographer

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L3633

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), artist, was born on 3 December 1875 in Edinburgh, son of Edward David Meldrum, chemist, and his wife Christine, née Macglashan. He was educated at George Heriot's Hospital, Edinburgh, and arrived in Melbourne in 1889 with his father (who had taken a post with Felton, Grimwade & Co., wholesale druggists), his mother, two brothers and one sister.

After working briefly as a clerk in a wool store Meldrum enrolled in 1892 at the National Gallery School under Bernard Hall. In 1895-96 he sometimes assisted George Coates at his painting and life classes, was one of the artists in the Prehistoric Order of Cannibals club, and contributed cartoons to the socialist weekly the Champion. In 1899 he won the National Gallery travelling scholarship. To augment his travel funds he unsuccessfully requested the patronage of the trustees of the gallery for an art union which he proposed to conduct with his scholarship picture as the prize.

Proceeding to Paris in 1900 Meldrum began to work under L. J. R. Collin and Gustave Courtois at the Académie Colarossi. In March 1901 he was studying under Jean Paul Laurens at the Académie Julian as well as at Colarossi's, but he soon withdrew from both ateliers. In June he was living with a maternal uncle in Edinburgh and thence in December he shipped a nude study, painted in Scotland, to the Melbourne gallery trustees. He had already begun that year to copy works in the Louvre and on his return to Paris in 1902 copied a portrait by Tintoretto and Paolo Veronese's Flight from Sodom. Later that year he began to work on the original painting required by the terms of his scholarship. In Paris Meldrum met Charles Nitsch, a painter from Pacé near Rennes, who introduced Meldrum to his family; about 1907 he married Nitsch's sister Jeanne Eugenie, a singer of the Opéra Comique, Paris. From Rennes Meldrum exhibited 'La Leçon' at the Salon de la Société des Artistes Français in 1904, and from Paris 'Le contre-fa' in 1905. In 1907-08 he painted murals on commission, in the Chateau de Pacé. He exhibited 'Au Chateau de Pacé' and 'Un Paysan de Pacé' in 1908 at the Société des Artistes Français, and in 1911 'L'homme qui rit'. He was elected an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

Returning to Melbourne with his family in 1912, Meldrum lived with his parents in East Melbourne, then at St Kilda. In 1915 he took a studio at 527 Collins Street, for a time sharing it with Harley Griffiths, senior, and opened an art school there. Among his students were Clarice Beckett, Colin Colahan, Auguste Cornels, John Farmer, Polly Hurry, Justus Jorgensen, Percy Leason and Arnold Shore, and he influenced considerably the work of his friend Alexander Colquhoun, whose son Archibald was also a Meldrum student at that time. In 1916-17 he was elected president of the Victorian Artists' Society.

In 1919 Max Meldrum His Art and Views, edited by Colahan, was published, including a long essay by Meldrum entitled 'The invariable truths of depictive art' developed from a lecture in 1917. In it he argued that painting was a pure science, the science of optical analysis or photometry by means of which the artist, in carefully perceiving and analysing tone and tonal relationships, could produce an exact appearance of the thing seen. Tone was the most important component of the art of painting, next came proportion, 'the superficial area occupied by one tone', and then colour, the least important component. The decadence of civilization was revealed through art by the declining interest in tonal analysis and the increased contemporary interest in colour. The theory, despite its severe constraints on proportion and colour, proved highly influential among his students and a Meldrum school of painting, impressed by the theory and methods of its master, developed in Melbourne. From the late 1930s his ideas were promulgated in Sydney by Hayward Veal, and in the United States of America by Leason at the Staten Island Institute of Art and Science.

Meldrum's school became the principal alternative in Victoria to the National Gallery's. Between 1916 and 1923 he held his classes in the city, then moved them to a large room in his home in Kooyong Road, Elsternwick. In April 1926 he sailed for France where he lived for some years, making a six-month tour of the U.S.A. in 1928 to lecture on his theory and methods of painting. Returning to Melbourne in 1931 he took a house at Armadale for six months, then moved to Olinda until 1933. In 1936 he bought a house in Belmont Avenue, Kew, and next year opened a new school in Collins Street. During the 1930s his students included John Farmer, Ron Crawford, Peter Glass, Hayward Veal and Ida Meldrum. He was a trustee of the National Gallery of Victoria in 1937-50, his strong opposition to the acquisition of modernist work bringing him into confrontation with Sir Keith Murdoch. Meldrum won the Archibald prize for portrait painting in 1939 and again in 1940. In 1950 The Science of Appearances as Formulated and Taught by Max Meldrum, a substantial account of his theory and methods edited by Russell Foreman, one of his students, was published in Sydney. He died at Kew on 6 June 1955 and was cremated. His wife (d.1966) and two daughters survived him.

Meldrum was probably the only Australian artist to develop a fully formulated theory of painting and to practise and teach it. Small in stature, generous to a degree, he was also argumentative and occasionally waspish. Lionel Lindsay, intolerant of his fanatical dedication to his theory, dubbed Meldrum 'the mad Mullah' and Norman Lindsay depicted him as the dogmatic McQuibble in his novel A Curate in Bohemia. A pacifist during World War I, he gave influential support to Egon Kisch on his arrival in Australia in 1934 and actively defended civil liberties over the years.

Meldrum became a foundation member of the Australian Art Association, in 1912. He held exhibitions of his work in Melbourne at the Athenaeum Hall (1913 and 1922) and Gallery (1931), at Georges Gallery (1945), and in Sydney at David Jones gallery (1937) and Farmer's Blaxland Gallery (1941). He also exhibited with the Royal Society of Portrait Painters, London. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held in the National Gallery of Victoria, the National Art Gallery of New South Wales and the Queensland National Art Gallery in 1954. The National Gallery of Victoria also held an exhibition of his work in 1961. He was awarded the medal of the Society of Artists, Sydney, for services to Australian art. There is a self-portrait in the Art Gallery of South Australia.

Select Bibliography

  • J. J. M. Thompson, On Lips of Living Men (Melb, 1962)
  • D. Meeson Coates, George Coates, His Art and His Life (Lond, 1937)
  • C. B. Christesen (ed), The Gallery on Eastern Hill (Melb, 1970)
  • E. Hanks (compiler), Australian Art and Artists to 1950 (Melb, 1982)
  • Triad (Sydney), 10, no 6 (Apr 1925)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 26, no 2 (June 1967)
  • Argus (Melbourne), 2 Sept 1912, 23 July 1913
  • Punch (Melbourne), 18 June 1925
  • Sydney Morning Herald, 1, 3 Nov 1937, 20 Jan 1940, 22 Jan, 14 Nov 1941, 11 Mar 1950, 10 July 1954
  • Age (Melbourne), 7 June 1955, 22 Aug 1959
  • Sunday Mirror (Sydney), 23 Sept 1962
  • J. McGrath, The Australian Art Association, 1912-1933 (B. Soc. Sci. special study, Royal Melbourne Institute of Technology, 1974)
  • Australian art and artists files (State Library of Victoria)
  • unpublished letter, Meldrum to Leason, 23 July 1928 (Leason papers, State Library of Victoria)
  • biography cuttings and artists files (National Library of Australia)
  • Salon exhibition catalogues, Paris, 1903-06, 1908, 1911 (held by Société des Artistes Français, Paris)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

Joyce McGrath and Bernard Smith, 'Meldrum, Duncan Max (1875–1955)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University,, published first in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 17 June 2024.

This article was published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (Melbourne University Press), 1986

View the front pages for Volume 10

© Copyright Australian Dictionary of Biography, 2006-2024

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), by unknown photographer

Duncan Max Meldrum (1875-1955), by unknown photographer

National Archives of Australia, A1200:L3633

Life Summary [details]


3 December, 1875
Edinburgh, Mid-Lothian, Scotland


6 June, 1955 (aged 79)
Kew, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia

Cultural Heritage

Includes subject's nationality; their parents' nationality; the countries in which they spent a significant part of their childhood, and their self-identity.