You may know that impressionism began in France in the second half of the 1800s, when artists like Monet and Renoir broke from formal styles to embrace dreamy techniques and then-unconventional outdoor settings. But much less widely known is Australia’s own school of impressionists, an energetic community of local artists who created their own scene, developing a body of works in conversation with one another.

That robust ecosystem is the focus of She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism, an ambitious new show running at The Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia, Fed Square until Sunday August 22. Spanning more than 250 works, the exhibition presents a cross-section of local artists working at home and abroad around the start of the 20th century, reflecting the seismic shifts taking place in the world around them.

“It was an incredibly formative moment for Australia,” says Sophie Gerhard, assistant curator of Australian art at NGV. “Melbourne was the most wealthy city in the world due to the gold rush. There was a real impetus for change, and [artists] were reacting to these societal changes.”

As well as responding to foreign movements such as French impressionism, Australia’s impressionists were inspired by the country’s vast natural landscape. “Impressionism in Australia started off in this dense bushland, with Frederick McCubbin going into the Macedon Ranges, which were so green,” Gerhard says, referencing the 1886 piece Lost. “You [almost] can hear the cracking of the sticks beneath your feet. And so many of these artists [paint] wonderful snapshots of the ocean.”

Some of the beach images even have sand incidentally mixed in with the paint. Aiming to shed new light on a well-loved artistic movement, NGV’s curators have included many lesser-known names and works, such as student-era wood samples handpainted by May Vale. These hang alongside iconic canvases like Tom Roberts’s 1890 painting Shearing the Rams.

As an introduction to the exhibition, Gerhard spoke to Broadsheet about five breakout works.

Iso Rae Young Girl, Étaples (1892)
With a happy toddler taking up nearly the whole canvas, which was unusual in 19th-century children’s portraiture, this piece is a new acquisition for NGV. “It’s a really nice narrative of an Australian artist working in France at the time,” says Gerhard. “We don’t know who the child is, but we think it was someone very important to her.” Supporting that idea is the fact Rae painted the same child on multiple occasions, and held onto this particular piece throughout her lifetime.

Charles Conder Hot Wind (1889)
Bordering on the surreal, Hot Wind portrays a blonde woman lying on a beach before an approaching snake, blowing smoke from a brazier toward a distant city. “Conder was really influenced by what was happening in Europe with regards to symbolism and conversations around the femme fatale,” says Gerhard. “There was a lot of anxiety about women gaining more freedom and rights. A lot of images painted the femme fatale in a scary, anxiety-provoking light.”

Tom Roberts, She-Oak and Sunlight (1889)
The exhibition’s title piece is part of a striking collection of smaller nine- by five-centimetre works, often painted on the back of cigar-box lids. This piece is larger, at 30centimetres square, but still smaller than most paintings of the time. Its textured brushstrokes portray a serene slice of the natural world. Roberts even had this work framed on his studio wall, Gerhard says, “so he really liked it too”.

Ethel Carrick, Flower Market (1907)
This piece, with its smudged colours and faceless shoppers, comes from the English-born Carrick, who adopted Australia as a home for much of her life. “At the time she was working in France, so we have this great perspective of her capturing the French essence of impressionism,” says Gerhard. “It’s really bright and backlit, and super colourful. It’s very French, with these bourgeois society members promenading.”

Arthur Streeton, The Purple Noon’s Transparent Might (1896)
Presenting an aerial view of New South Wales’s Hawkesbury River at a particularly low ebb, this sweeping landscape work was painted from an overlooking hill. “It’s hung really prominently in the exhibition,” Gerhard says, “and it’s just undergone an incredible conservation treatment where we’ve deep-cleaned it. So it’s actually never been seen in this light before. The colours are just so different now.”

Book tickets here.

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