John LONGSTAFF, Motherless Enlarge 1 /1


Clunes, Victoria, Australia 1862 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia 1941

  • France, Spain 1888-95
  • Australia 1895- 1901
  • England 1901-11
  • Australia from 1911

Motherless [Mourning figures] 1886 Place made: Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas

Dimensions: 124.6 h x 91.0 w cm
Acknowledgement: Purchased 1971
Accession No: NGA 71.110

Senior students at the National Gallery School in Melbourne produced ‘story’ paintings for their annual exhibition and awards. These paintings presented a critical moment in a narrative in such a way as to infer the rest of the story. These genre pictures were popular because they appealed to the Victorian taste for melodrama and high sentimentality. Other typical subjects included lost children, parting and separation, lost love and the fallen woman. John Longstaff inscribed the original frame for Motherless with a sentimental line from Tennyson: ‘O for the touch of a vanish’d hand/And the sound of a voice that is still’. An obsession with mortality was often evident in such works, coupled with the theme of excessive piety.

These three sisters are deep in mourning for their mother. They appear to be close in age, the youngest kneeling, with her face buried in her hands. The second sister is slumped in despair against the wall, while the seated figure, possibly the eldest, appears numb with grief and with the responsibility that has now fallen upon her. Death was a favoured subject for many artists in a time of short life-spans and epidemics.

Longstaff studied at the Gallery School under the artist G.F. Folingsby, who succeeded Eugene von Guérard as head of the Gallery School. Folingsby had a reputation as a figure painter and encouraged his students to use painting techniques that he had learned at the Munich Academy. He taught his students to paint a naturalistic kind of history painting, to select a dramatic subject viewed under carefully controlled lighting and to use a grey-brown palette enlivened with red. Folingsby’s influence on Longstaff shows in the sombre brown tonality of the interior of this painting (befitting the sadness of the image) and the capable drawing of the figures and costumes.

Barbara Brinton 2002

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