During the years following Federation and before the beginning of the First World War, artists working in Australia became increasingly nationalistic in their subject matter and in their unwillingness to accept new modernist European approaches.
Landscape with gums and oxen is redolent of the blue-gold colours of summer at dusk. The luminescent light bathes the ubiquitous eucalypts that dominates the central space, while the sturdy beasts of burden are guided home. Hans Heysen greatly admired the 19th-century French artist Millet and emulated that artist’s belief in the heroism of simple rural toil. In this work, Heysen created a powerful embodiment of the beauty of nature and an idyllic rural state.
Heysen’s early preoccupation with depicting sunlight and the unique sensations of the rural bush environment is evident in this watercolour. Living at Hahndorf in the Adelaide Hills isolated Heysen from the wider art world, although his correspondence with Lionel Lindsay over many years provided a critical link to Sydney and Melbourne and produced valuable responses to his own work.
In a letter to Lindsay of 3 February 1910, Heysen wrote of Landscape with gums and oxen: ‘what I tried to give [is a] sense of space and atmosphere with movement in nature’ and in the same letter ‘I am just on a small watercolour for Mr Gill of Melbourne of a Gum tree seen against a setting sun with two oxen trudging in the dusk.’1
While setting the precedent for the cult of the eucalypt, Heysen’s art remains an honest response to his environment, and his rural subjects have captured the national imagination.
Betty Snowden 2002.
1Hans Heysen, letter to Lionel Lindsay, 3 February 1910, Lindsay Family (papers), La Trobe Australian Manuscripts Collection, State Library of Victoria, MS 9104
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