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Symbolism and Australia

George Lambert - Portrait with Ambrose Patterson, Amy Lambert and Hugh Ramsay c1901-1903

George W Lambert, Australia/England 1873-1930 | Self Portrait with Ambrose Patterson, Amy Lambert and Hugh Ramsay c.1901-03 | Oil in canvas | Purchased 2009 with funds from Philip Bacon, AM through the Queensland Art Gallery Foundation | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Spirit of the Plains

Sydney Long, Australia 1871-1955 | Spirit of the Plains 1897 | Oil on canvas on wood | Gift of William Howard-Smith in memory of his grandfather, Ormond Charles Smith, 1940 | Collection: Queensland Art Gallery

Currently on display | Josephine Ulrick and Win Schubert Galleries | Queensland Art Gallery (QAG)

Symbolism emerged as a literary movement in France in the 1880s, its tenets quickly adopted by painters, printmakers and sculptors seeking to express meaning through allegory. With an emphasis on sensuality, spirituality and emotion, the style was influential internationally. Thriving in opposition to established academic and realist modes of representation, proponents drew on mythology, medievalism, the occult and their own private imaginings. Symbolism was soon absorbed into the culture of the day – its most decorative expression emerged as art nouveau, a sinuous and organic visual language, popular in the fields of design, advertising and illustration.

Australian artists Bernard Hall, Rupert Bunny and Bertram Mackennal, who were working in Europe in the 1880s, as well as George W Lambert, who was there a decade later, all fell under the influence of Symbolism, at least for a time. Their work helped to familiarise Australian audiences with the style, which also filtered back through the paintings of Portuguese artist Arthur Loureiro, who shared a close association with symbolist artists and writers in Paris in the early 1880s; Loureiro migrated to Melbourne in 1884. However, the movement was more widely known here through magazines and journals.

The paintings and sculptures on display here explore mythology and allegory, as well as ideals, such as truth and beauty. The female figure is used to personify these qualities, and to symbolise cycles of life, death and renewal. Of the artists shown here, Sydney Long came closest to bridging the gap between these themes and the nationalist sentiments prevalent in Australian society at the end of the nineteenth century. The nymph-like figure leading a procession of brolgas through a twilight landscape in Long’s lyrical Spirit of the Plains 1897 symbolises the idyllic view of the Australian bush.

Collection Highlights 

George W Lambert Self Portrait with Ambrose Patterson, Amy Lambert & Hugh Ramsay c.1901-03 

George W Lambert established his career in Sydney, where for a time he shared a studio with Sydney Long. Lambert married in 1900 and shortly afterwards travelled to Europe with his wife, Amy, meeting painter Hugh Ramsay during the voyage. The artists befriended fellow expatriate Ambrose Patterson while studying in Paris.

Lambert and his circle appear here as allegorical figures, possibly in a homage to the arts. The painting’s decorative format also connects it totableaux vivants, the drawing room entertainments in which guests posed in scenes from literature or history. Reading from left to right we see Lambert, Patterson, Amy Lambert and Ramsay. The identity of fifth and last figure is uncertain, though Arthur Streeton, writer Arthur Adams and English painter Cecil Rae are all possible subjects. 

Sydney Long Spirit of the Plains 1897

After moving to Sydney from Goulburn in 1888, Sydney Long suppported himself by teaching and painting the occasional commission. Long came under the spell of French Symbolism, which was bringing a new pastoral romanticism to Australian painting. He wanted the Australian landscape to ‘free the imagination of the figure painter, employing soulful and graceful evocations of the spirit of the land, as did the Greeks and their beautiful myths'. Spirit of the Plains melds this ethereal, exotic mythology with an identifiably native Australia, featuring the Australian brolga. Long’s rhythmic painting is a vision of Australia as a kind of pantheistic dissolution of the distinction between humans and the natural world.

For Kids
Sydney Long liked to imagine fairies and spirits in the Australian landscape, and humans and animals existing in harmony with each other. He often painted people playing flutes to attract birds and animals. The elegant native birds dancing with this woman are Australian brolgas. Do you ever imagine fairies at the bottom of your garden? Can you think of some stories about fairies in the Australian landscape? 

Of Interest 

The Queensland Art Gallery houses a significant collection of Australian paintings, sculptures, decorative art objects, and works on paper. Find more information on these selected Collection highlights | Indigenous Australian Art | Queensland Heritage | Australian Art to 1975 

Search the Queensland Art Gallery's Collection online for works by George W Lambert, Sydney Long, Arthur Loureiro, Bernard Hall and Bertram Mackennal | Collection Search