On Saturday morning 17 August 1889, a group of artists opened the doors to the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition at Buxton’s Art Gallery in Melbourne. Among them were Charles Conder, Frederick McCubbin, Charles Douglas Richardson, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton. The rooms were decorated in an aesthetic style, with draperies of soft Liberty silk, Japanese umbrellas and blue and green vases filled with japonica and roses, violets, jonquils and daphne, which perfumed the room. Afternoon tea was served in dainty cups and Miss Fanny Bristow sang. The title of the exhibition referred to the size of the 182 works on display, many of which had been painted on cedar cigar box lids measuring nine by five inches. The artists wanted to convey momentary impressions of colour and light, fleeting atmospheric effects, transient moods of nature, writing in the catalogue: ‘An effect is only momentary … two half-hours are never alike … it has been the object of the artists to render faithfully, and thus obtain the first record of effects widely differing, and often of very fleeting character’.1 They took the dramatic step of asserting that these ‘impressions’ were finished, independent pictures.
Probably the most famous display in Australian art, the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition was well appreciated by members of Melbourne’s intellectual and social circles, who visited in large numbers. The show received controversial press coverage, with some reviewers suggesting that the impressions were not appropriate for display as they were nothing more than slight preparatory studies, executed in a ‘slap-dash’ manner. Others described it as an attractive display of clever sketches for an educated taste, and declared that the exhibition was not to be missed. The pictures were affordable and sold well, and the exhibition established the artists’ reputations as innovators, and created their identity as a group of Australian impressionists (or impressions-ists).
Conder’s Herrick’s blossoms, Streeton’s Hoddle St., 10 p.m. and Robert’s Going home were all included in the exhibition. Conder painted his work in response to Robert Herrick’s poem, ‘To Blossoms’. He painted it quickly with sparse brushwork to evoke the look of a landscape at the beginning of spring, when the blossom begins to flower and provides a note of colour among wintry greys and greens. In the spirit of springtime and to give the view a touch of humanity and romance, Conder sketched in two small figures: a man kneeling at the feet of a woman. Most of Streeton’s contributions to the exhibition conveyed the atmospheric effects of twilight and half-light. In Hoddle St., 10 p.m. he depicted night time in a Melbourne suburb during winter, with pedestrians walking the pavements and a solitary horse-drawn cab driving down the road, with a few lights glowing in the houses of those who had not yet gone to bed. In Going home,Roberts likewise portrayed evening effects; the dark, silhouetted forms of a man and a woman with their arms linked, walking along a wet pavement at sunset. He painted the image swiftly, in a limited range of colours and tones to convey an impression of the last red-gold light of the evening.
The artists captured the scene, the atmosphere of place, with few brushstrokes. They created paintings that are remarkable for their freshness. The colour harmonies, the subtle nuances of pink, mauve, purple and grey, are as seductive today as they were when painted. Likewise the lively gestures, the mark-making on the surface of the boards, are as expressive now as when they were first applied.
Conder, Streeton and Roberts shared an interest in using fresh colours and energetic brushstrokes with the Impressionists Monet and Pissarro. They wanted to paint freely from nature in the open air and to observe the effects of light, but their small panels were in no way comparable to the larger canvases of the French artists. In their adoption of poetic and musical titles, their concern to capture the underlying moods of nature, and their use of small panels, they followed the British artist James McNeill Whistler and his subtle, evocative sketches, which he displayed in his well-publicised exhibition, Notes – Harmonies – Nocturnes. The main instigator and stage-manager of the 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, Tom Roberts had seen Whistler’s exhibition in London in May 1884. He returned home to Australia enthused with the idea of painting rapid outdoor impressions and by the aesthetic ideas of Whistler, which resulted in this innovative exhibition.
19 by 5: Exhibition of Impressionists at Buxton’s Swanston Street, Melbourne, August 17, 1889, Melbourne: the artists, 1889, title page.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002