Playing a flute-like instrument, a naked figure leads a flock of birds in a synchronised, rhythmic formation towards a group of sinuous gum trees. The moon has just risen and the face of the spirit is thrown into silhouette. An aura of mystery surrounds the scene.
Painted whilst Long was in London, this work is a variation of his Thespirit of theplains painted 17 years earlier in 1897 (now in the Queensland Art Gallery). This later work has been simplified, with fewer trees in the background, one less brolga and not as much detail in the foreground foliage.
Whilst in London, Long studied etching at London Central School, producing prints of Australian flora, fauna and landscapes, as well as interpretations of some of his earlier paintings such as The spirit of the plains and Pan. With these wistful, lyrical images, he made his modest British reputation as a printmaker.
Born in Goulburn, Long was taught by Julian Ashton and, while still a student, achieved early success when the Art Gallery of New South Wales purchased his Tranquil waters 1894. The first in a series of idylls featuring naked youth in the Australian landscape, Tranquil waters caused a sensation in the 1890s because its morality was questioned by the press and parliament. However, the nudity as depicted in The spirit of the plains and Pan was considered acceptable and the painting was appreciated for the way it contributed to the development of a specifically Australian mythology.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002