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Friday, August 7, 2015

Tom Roberts

The Big Picture, 1903, Tom Roberts
One of the traits a successful artist must possess is the desire to stand apart from the crowd. That is, to adopt elements in his or her work which tend to "startle" the viewer. It may often be in the form of content. I always claimed that I like to paint subjects most artists wouldn't touch with a ten-foot paintbrush (it's hard to paint with a pole). However standing out from the crowd may also involve sheer size. Most painters measure their work in inches. The outstanding artists might use feet instead. Another factor might be style, though it's harder do stand out as a matter of style because the various styles are somewhat limited; and hundreds of artists' styles differ very little from one to another. And finally, standing apart might be nothing more than the manner in which artists promote their work. If an artist can combine two or more of these factors in most or all of his or her efforts, so much the better. Financial success and critical acclaim may not be instantaneous--it may not come at all--but that artist is certain to make an impression. Good or bad, the worst that can happen to an artist is to be ignored.
Tom Roberts at work on his unfinished Big Picture.
Tom Roberts Self-Portrait, 1924
The turn-of-the-century Australian painter, Tom Roberts was an artist not to be ignored. One of his masterpiece paintings, The Big Picture (top), painted in 1903, appears to be about ten feet tall and some fifteen feet wide. The title is as apt as it is obvious, though it adds little to the historic content of the painting. The Big Picture is a depiction of the first sitting of the Australian Parliament in 1901. Some of the faces in the crowd are portraits. Today, Roberts' The Big Picture hangs at the Parliament House in Canberra. The size was appropriate to the occasion. As to the nature of his content, It would be easiest to refer to Roberts as a genre painter or perhaps a landscape artist. He was, in fact, both. Perhaps the best description of his work is to say he was an artist who painted a portrait of a rapidly developing nation from about 1885 to 1930. Born in 1856, Roberts died in 1931 at the age of seventy-five.

Shearing the Rams, 1888-90, Tom Roberts
Professor G W L Marshall Hall,
Tom Roberts.
There are several approaches to painting a nation. One could concentrate on the landscape as did several early American painters. An artist could become a history painter, rendering massive canvases of important events in a nation's growth and social maturity. Or, the artist might simply paint those living, working, and playing in that nation. Many talented, but otherwise fairly ordinary artists have done quite well, pursuing just one of these approaches. Roberts took on all three. Usually considered his second masterpiece, Shearing the Rams (above) from 1888-90, while not exactly history painting, nonetheless depicts the major export of Australia at the time. It was criticized for being "too neat." The man "strong-arming" the upright ram in the background was also deemed inaccurate. According to critics, the worker should have been shown dragging the animal. Quite apart from painting his country, Roberts was a resolute portrait painter of individuals as well. HIs painting of Professor G W L Marshall Hall (right) is one of the strongest male portraits I've ever seen.

Holiday Sketch at Coogee, 1888, Tom Roberts.
As an Australian landscape painter, Roberts was without peer, though such a claim is easy to make and hard to prove, given the fact that the country had so many outstanding landscape artists working at the time. But, again, Roberts' landscapes were often startling as to content. His Holiday Sketch at Coogee (above), from 1888, is pleasant enough, nicely composed, and quite inviting. However it is, after all, simply a beach scene not unlike those painted by dozens of other landscape artists before and since. However, his derelict The Old Sacramento (below), from1885, while still very much a brilliant, sun-setting landscape, seems to be something of a seafaring metaphor--a dying ship portrayed against a dying sun.

The Old Sacramento, 1885, Tom Roberts
Study of Lena Brasch, 1893, Tom Roberts
As The Old Sacramento suggests, sometimes, Roberts was able to combine the exceptional landscape with a genre, or historic scene (or a combination of the two) as shown in his Bailed up (below), a scene from the old West (of Australia) that would seem to indicate that frontier life was not much different from continent to continent (except for the accent). Whether painting history, landscapes, or portraits, Roberts' style, which was undeniably Impressionist, despite his somewhat monochromatic palette, lent itself to his raw, masculine depictions of his country as it struggled from Victorian colony into nationhood and the uncharted 20th-century. As with his portrait of Professor G W L Marshall Hall, even his female portraits such as that of Study of Lena Brasch (right), from 1893, have a bold, firm, sturdy quality, yet this one conveys a delicate feminism in its apparently sketch-like, unfinished state (something of a portrait fad at the time).

Bailed up, Tom Roberts
Perhaps one of the most interesting and unusual glimpses of late 19th-century Australia is Roberts' The Sculptor's Studio (below), from 1884. For several years Roberts lived and worked at the famous studio complex of Grosvenor Chambers, located at 9 Collins Street in Melbourne. The complex of studios and apartments was an artists' colony in a single building designed solely for that purpose. It was undoubtedly the first such structure in Australia and one of only a few anywhere at the time. There Roberts shared workspace with such Australian art notables as Arthur Streeton, Clara Southern, Charles Conder, E. Phillips Fox, John Longstaff, Max Meldrum, Mirka Mora, Albert Tucker and Wolfgang Sievers. Built in 1888 Grosvenor Chambers held studios until the mid-1970s when all but the façade was demolished for a high rise office building. None of the artist mentioned above was a sculptor so the identity of Roberts' sculpting friend (and his model) remain unknown.

The Sculptor's Studio, 1884, Tom Roberts
Roberts, as did many working artists of
his time, also dabbled in illustration. This
is one of a series of book covers probably
from the late 1920s, judging from the
temptress' "skimpy" attire.


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