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Tuesday, January 24, 2017

Charles Conder

A Holiday at Mentone, c. 1888, Charles Conder.
A day at the beach back then was not what it is today.
I've touched on this subject before, but it's worth mentioning again. Painting style are seldom province of a single nation. For example, when we think of Expressionism, more often than not we think of the Germans. Yet when we think of Abstract Expressionism we automatically bring to mind the New York School of the 1950s. With Classicism, it's the Italian Renaissance. When we talk about Impressionism, first and foremost (and perhaps exclusively) we think of the French. Yet every one of these styles, though they may have originated in a particular country to some extent, each one was international in scope. In fact, taking Impressionism, as an example, some of the best Impressionist works we have today are not French, but American, British, and in the case of the British-born artist Charles Conder, Australian.

Stockyard near Jamberoo, ca. 1888, Charles Conder
Conder was one of the founders and a key member of the Heidelberg School. That's not an academic art institution in Heidelberg, Germany. In fact, as far as I can tell, it has absolutely nothing to do with that country. It was, instead a group of Australian painters in and around the Heidelberg area of Melbourne and Sydney, painting en plein air during the latter decades of the 19th-century. The group included Arthur Streeton, Walter Withers, Tom Roberts, Conder, and Frederick McCubbin. For the most part they were Impressionists and Conder could easily be considered the best of the lot.
Besides being a talented painter, Condor was a handsome,
debonair man, what we might term a "playboy" today.
Charles Conder was born in England in 1868. When the boy turned 15, his father, a civil engineer, sent him off to his uncle, a surveyor in Sydney, Australia, hoping to discourage his love of art. But besides his survey work (unbeknownst to his father) Conder took art classes. In 1886 he won a prize for one of his paintings and began getting his illustrations published. Departure of the Orient--Circular Quay (below), from 1888, is considered the culmination of Conder’s mastery of form and brushwork. Painted from the vantage point of an upstairs room at the First and Last Hotel, overlooking the bustling harbor in Sydney Cove, this work depicts the dockside scene at the moment when the ‘Orient’ casts off for her voyage to England. The theme of lively urban streetscapes and rainy atmospheric conditions was one derived from the work of the American-born James McNeill Whistler, who in turn inspired a generation of international artists conversant with the principles of French Impressionism. Conder sailed back to Europe via Naples in 1890, also travelling to Rome and Florence on his way to Paris. There he attended Rodolphe Julian’s atelier. There too, he became friends with Oscar Wilde and many other celebrities of the art world. Toulouse-Lautrec painted his portrait in 1893 (above).

Departure of the Orient--Circular Quay, 1888, Charles Conder.
Conder was to spend the rest of his life in Europe, mainly England, but visiting France on many occasions. His art was better received in England than in Paris. In 1895, Conder came to Dieppe, in an attempt to socialize among the artistic community and the English families with their attractive daughters. Simona Pakenham in her study of the English people before World War I, remembered him as "...a sick man, unable to face reality." Despite his shortcomings, Conder married a wealthy widow, Stella Maris Belford, in 1901, thus giving him financial security. In spite of drunken spells and disreputable company, Conder's skill as an artist was at its height. He made a specialty of painting on silk, especially silk fans (below).

Autumn Fan, ca. 1895, Charles Conder.
Conder was a fun-loving man who often painted with a humorous touch. Around 1888, while staying with Tom Roberts in his famous Grosvenor chambers studio, he painted A Holiday at Mentone (top), which depicts men and women at the beach relaxing while clothed from head to foot–-the men in suits and hats; the ladies in long, girdled dresses with boots and pretty hats. No one seems to even contemplate going near the ocean. Conder delighted in such scenes (below), some actually depicting swimmers in the water (bathers, as they were called then).

Few people swam, or even tanned, at the beach in the 1890s.
The bohemian lifestyle of many gifted men of the age attracted Conder, while his charming, rakish character, and witty, delicate work attracted them to him. Years before, back in Melbourne (around 1888), Conder had shared a studio with Tom Roberts, whom he had previously met in Sydney. Short of cash, the attractive Conder apparently paid off his landlady with sexual favors. She, in turn, gave him a receipt in the form of syphilis. Tragically, in 1909, Conder died of the disease. Just four years after his death, his work was being acclaimed by Degas and Pissarro, two of the foremost French Impressionists, who ranked the Australian as a "Modern Master."

An Early Taste for Literature,
1888, Charles Conder



  1. A friend has 2 paintings by E.Conder. one is Redgums Hunter Valley 1980 and the other is Evening Afterglow 1986. Are they worth anything

  2. Karen--

    In answer to your question, I'd say "yes" they ARE worth something. In anticipation of your NEXT question as to how MUCH they might be worth, there are a dozen critical factors which would determine that. Try looking up how much some of Conder's other works have brought at auction. Other factors involve the size of the paintings, their condition and how LITTLE your friend might want to sell them. Conder has been dead just over a century so his work is likely to have appreciated some. I just noticed that the dates you mentioned for the paintings don't jibe with his lifespan (1868-1909), which leads me to believe they might be forgeries unless you typed in the wrong century in your comment.