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Eugene von Guérard takes his viewers on an international tour - from Europe's lush forests to Australia's wide skies and New Zealand's awesome ruggedness in Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed at the NGV. Von Guérard played a fundamental role in capturing the Australian landscape, particularly Victoria, during the mid 1800s. Nature Revealed features 150 of von Guérard's pieces (including sketch books and paintings that have not previously been displayed) which assist us better understand Australian colonial life over this period.
It was 1826 when von Guérard left his birth town of Vienna to travel to Italy's great art centres with his father. Whilst in Rome in 1830, von Guérard took advantage of his opportunity to study under leading landscape painter, Giambattista Bassi, from whom he quickly learnt many skills and developed his techniques. In 1832, von Guérard turned his attention to the unique volcanic landscapes of Pompeii and Naples, as well as the breathtaking scenery of Salerno, Paestum, the Amalfi Coast and islands of Ischia, Capri and Sicily.
Following his father's death from cholera in 1836, von Guérard moved to Düsseldorf, where he had the fortuitous opportunity to study under Johann Wilhelm Schirmer. This experience increased von Guérard's ability to capture nature accurately and fluently. This part of the exhibition also includes some of Schirmer's pieces, in addition to von Guérard's work.
Von Guérard was forty-one years old when he arrived in Australia in 1852. Well travelled after spending years in Rome, Naples and Düsseldorf, von Guérard had a wealth of experience and an eagerness to explore – he was primed to capture the Australian landscape "faithfully and with truth to nature."
Following his migration to Australia, von Guérard swiftly travelled to the Victorian goldfields where he spent thirteen months in Ballarat. This was not a financially rewarding experience, and von Guérard soon began to explore other options.
By the mid 1800s, many new settlers had started to cultivate a living from the land and established themselves in extensive homesteads in (often) remote parts of the country. Von Guérard seized the opportunity to travel to remote locations as many wealthy pastoralists and farmers commissioned him to paint homestead portraits. Capturing these grand residences was a testament to the wealth and success of the owners, who were eager to record their achievements.
Upon entering the exhibition, viewers are greeted by the warm, glowing colours and peaceful air of View of Geelong 1856. This piece has it all, with the township set against the backdrop of the distant You Yangs and Dandenong ranges, which are put into perspective by the bullock train in the foreground.
The landscape of many of these remote regions inspired von Guérard. In addition to portraits of showy homesteads, von Guérard also captured the scenery of parts of Western Victoria, such as Mount Elephant and a spectacular bushfire between Mount Elephant and Timboon in 1859.
Von Guérard had a remarkable talent for capturing all elements of the Australian landscape: the sky, particularly clouds and varying light levels, water and the reflections upon it, and the contrasting vegetation of the land. His skill is particularly evident in Tower Hill 1855. Several examples of von Guérard's studies of Australian wildlife, such as a platypus, also appear in the exhibition.
Eugene von Guérard, Tower Hill 1855, oil on canvas, 68.6 x 122.0 cm
In addition to Victoria, von Guérard also travelled extensively around NSW, particularly throughout the Illawarra region where he painted numerous scenes around American Creek, Wollongong. Von Guérard also travelled to the Blue Mountains, where he captured many of the breathtaking vistas in this region. One of his most magnificent pieces appears at the entrance to the third exhibition room. Von Guérard has masterfully captured the hazy purple tint of the distant hills and sky that overlooks the resplendent Weatherboard Creek Falls (now Wentworth Falls, NSW). A subtle mist rises from the precipitous slopes and you can almost feel the updraft gently rising from the gorge below. In the foreground, a solitary Aborigine quietly absorbs the surrounding landscape, offering a peaceful contrast to the tumultuous falls and creating perspective against the enormity of the landscape.
Eugene von Guérard, Weatherboard Creek Falls, oil on canvas, 122.1 x 183.3 cm
The exhibition continues with other striking water-themed pieces such as Castle Rock, Cape Schanck 1865 in which the rough red rocks provide a startling contrast against the ocean and land, and set off the glowing peach-coloured sunset. Once again, von Guérard utilises a fisherman in the foreground to create perspective and the lighthouse may feature as a symbolic warning of the jagged rocks below.
The exhibition includes a well-preserved collection of some of the forty-six sketchbooks accumulated throughout von Guérard's career. Two of these books are on loan from the von Guérard family; one of which belonged to von Guérard's father, Bernard, and the other is thought to be one of Eugene's earliest books. Sharp pencil and pen were commonly employed by Eugene throughout these books to generate studies of specific details or to prepare for larger, more complex works.
The final exhibition room features a collection of twelve hand-coloured proofs and six lithographs that were compiled into a book, Eugene von Guérard's Australian Landscapes (1866-68). Compiling this volume was no easy task, as von Guérard explained in 1870, "I had to put thousands of miles behind me on horseback, on foot and over the water, defeat troubles of every kind, endure many months of privation in the wilderness, to unite those few sheets in one volume, which can now be leafed through in a few minutes in a drawing room."
Von Guérard was the first Curator and Master of the School of Painting at Victoria's NGV. He remained in Australia for twenty-eight years before returning to Europe.
Resulting works from von Guérard's 1862 Mt Kosciuszko and 1877-79 Milford Sound expeditions prompt feelings of admiration and gratitude. Von Guérard's tireless dedication to capturing the natural world as it appeared all those years ago has provided us with a valuable historic record. Dr Ruth Pullin, Guest Curator, NGV believes that von Guérard has made a significant contribution to Australian art, particularly on his Mount Kosciuszko expedition, where he translated his "records of the geology and topography of the region, into some of the most sublime expressions of the Australian landscape in the history of Australian art".
Eugene von Guérard, North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko 1863, oil on canvas, 66.5 x 116.8 cm