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Joy of Museums

Museums, Art Galleries and Historical Sites

Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts

Tom Roberts

Thomas William “Tom” Roberts (1856 – 1931) was an English-born Australian artist. After attending art schools in Melbourne, he travelled to Europe in 1881 to further his training, and returned home in 1885, “primed with whatever was the latest in art”. He did much to promote “en plein air” painting and encouraged other artists to capture the national life of Australia.

Tom Roberts was a member of the famous ‘Heidelberg School’ of Australian artists of the late 1800s and early 2000s. These painters introduced an Australian style of depicting the bush, using impressionist principles to capture the light, colour and atmosphere of the Australian bush landscape and sky. Other members of the ‘Heidelberg School’ included Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Frederick Mc Cubbin, David Davies, Jane Sutherland, and Walter Withers. The school was closely tied to an emerging Australian nationalism, which saw the acceptance of Australian scenes and people as suitable subjects for art.

Tom Roberts was a leading figure in promoting open (in full) air painting and encouraged other Australian artists to capture the national life of Australia. He is best known for his “national narratives”, among them Shearing the Rams, A Break Away! and Bailed Up.

A Tour of Tom Roberts’ Art

  • Shearing the Rams
    • “Shearing the Rams” by Tom Roberts was painted in 1890 and depicts the shearing of the sheep in a timber shearing shed. Roberts wanted to express the difficulty, and fast working shearing process and the physical masculinity is portrayed with the frequent arched bending of the shearers spread down into the depths of the shed. At the same time, this was also a scene of excitement, and he has bathed the composition in the warm Australian sunlight. The two young boys capture the joy of the occasion. One boy is on the left in bare feet, and the second is in the centre of the composition looking directly at the viewer with a white-toothed smile. Tom Roberts made over 70 sketches during his first shearing season at a sheep station woolshed near Corowa. During the next shearing season, Roberts worked on the canvas, and finally completed the painting in his studio in Collins Street, Melbourne. The “Shearing the Rams” is one of the best-known and most-loved pictures in Australia. It is a masterpiece of Australian impressionism and an iconic representation of Australia’s significant wool industry.  Museum: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • A Break Away!
    • “A Break Away!” by Tom Roberts depicts a mob of thirsty sheep stampeding towards a dam for water. A drover on horseback is attempting to turn the mob before they crush and drown each other in their natural need to drink. This painting, an icon of Australian art, is part of a series of works by Tom Roberts that captured the emerging spirit of national identity in Australia during the 1890s. Roberts painted this work at Corowa, a town on the border between New South Wales and Victoria, Australia. The painting presents a time of drought, with little grass, and the soil is just dust. The work itself is a reflection on the pioneering days of the pastoral industry, which were coming to an end by the early 1900s. Museum: Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
  • Bailed Up
    • “Bailed Up” by Tom Roberts depicts a distinctive Australian subject of a stagecoach being held up by bushrangers in a forested section of an isolated road. Tom Roberts painted this work in 1895 while staying at a sheep station near a small town, called Inverell, in northern New South Wales, Australia. It was at this sheep station that he also painted “The Golden Fleece” a famous painting depicting sheep shearing.  The notorious bushranger Captain Thunderbolt had been active near this sheep station at Inverell, more than twenty-five years before this painting had been made, but it would have influenced Roberts and helped him conceived the idea of painting this subject. This painting presents the story of Captain Thunderbolt (Frederick Ward) holding up the Inverell–Glen Innes mail-coach. Roberts is beautifully depicting a crackling dry landscape in the heat and light of a high summer’s day in the Australian bush. It took 33 years for this iconic painting to find a buyer, and in 1927, Roberts reworked this painting to simplify the work making it more abstract. Museums: Art Gallery of New South Wales, Sydney
  • Miss Minna Simpson
    • “Miss Minna Simpson” by Tom Roberts depicts the five-year-old niece of Tom Roberts’s future wife. The rosy-cheeked face looks directly at the viewer as she firmly holds her cat. There is a confident contrast between the child’s relaxed face and the cat’s scowling face and paws reaching for the bowl of milk. Roberts’ tonal palette with the dark background sets off the white apron, bonnet and lace, pays homage to the much-admired international artists Manet, Whistler and to Velásquez. Museum: National Gallery of Australia

Tom Roberts

A Tour of Artists

Reflections on Tom Roberts

  • One of Australia’s favourite Impressionist Artist?

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“There is nothing more Australian than spending time in somebody else’s country.”
– Australian saying

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Photo Credit:1) Tom Roberts [Public domain]

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