While to some viewers Golden Summer, Eaglemont is a superior chocolate-box image, sentimental and nostalgic, the picture rewards detailed contemplation. It is indeed pretty but also profound. Streeton loved the ‘coppery light’ of long, lazy afternoons and perhaps the key to the painting is the bird in the right foreground. It signifies Australians at one with nature, a sense of well-being, comfortable occupation of a new country. The bird is still, at ease.
Golden Summer, Eaglemont is one of the best-known paintings of the Heidelberg School and has long been recognised as an Australian masterpiece. Painted in early 1889 during a summer of drought, it was consciously an epic work, large-scale and in keeping with a contemporary spirit exemplified in a lecture presented to Melbourne artists in June 1889 by Professor A.P. Laurie, who called for a poetic approach to native scenery. Australian artists should ‘paint it as it appeared to them in all the beauty of atmospheric effect’.1 They should present the Australian landscape so that those unfamiliar with it would appreciate its loveliness.
Streeton’s famous idyll has become a quintessential Australian painting of the years leading up to Federation in 1901. It emphasised the growing nationalism of the period, not yet a country but, in David Malouf’s words, ‘a place that was still being made habitable … some patch of the earth, however small, where [men] could stand up, feel the ground under their feet and say, this is mine, I have made it, I have made it mine’.2
In 1889, a critic described Golden Summer, Eaglemont as ‘a large summer landscape … a long undulating plain, which, lying in the glory of a warm sunny afternoon, appears as a stretch of golden meadow land, while in the distance the purple shadows are fast creeping over the hills, and lurking in the little patches among the hollows of the ground.3 Streeton first occupied the weatherboard farmhouse on the Mount Eagle estate at Heidelberg near Melbourne in 1888, the year before he painted Golden Summer, Eaglemont. He was deeply fond of Mount Eagle and called it ‘our hill of gold’.4 He made an initial oil sketch (now in the Ledger Collection, Benalla Art Gallery) which was an impromptu 9 by 5 ‘impression’ rather than a lyrical large-scale painting. The extraordinary visual poetry of the finished painting won it praise when exhibited at the Royal Academy, London, in 1891 and it won an award when shown in Paris in the following year.
In the early 1920s, Streeton altered the painting by making the shadow of the river-plain stronger to the left, and by emphasising the foliage of the trees. His inability to resist reworking the painting was modified by his decision to paint on the original varnish. This meant that the alterations could be removed more easily, revealing the work as originally painted, exhibited and sold in 1892 to an English industrialist. Streeton bought the painting back in 1919, and made the alterations before selling it again in 1924. The question of whether the alterations by the artist should have been removed is a debatable one, but the quality of the paintwork and the beauty of the picture, now in its original state, provide the answer eloquently.
When sold in 1924, 1985 and 1995, Golden Summer, Eaglemont established each time a record price for an Australian painting. The acquisition by the National Gallery of Australia was the fulfilment of a long-held goal by the then Director, Betty Churcher.
1Mary Eagle, The Oil Paintings of Arthur Streeton in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: Australian National Gallery, 1994, p.5
2David Malouf, The Conversations at Curlow Creek, London: Chatto, 1996
3Table Talk, April 26 1889, p.5 quoted in Mary Eagle op.cit., p.27.
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