In Sydney in the late 1890s the Australian-born Symbolist Sydney Long painted poetic moonrise subjects. Using an Art Nouveau approach, in The Spirit of the plains he depicted a nature sprite leading a group of elegantly dancing native birds (brolgas) before a stand of swaying eucalypts beneath a moonlit sky.
In 1914, while living in London, Long produced a second version of The Spirit of the plains. As in his earlier version of this subject, Long’s painting offers an escape from the everyday and introduces another reality that evokes something of what he described as ‘the lonely and primitive feeling of this country … a feeling more suggestive of some melancholy pastoral to be rendered in music’.
This was a different image of Australia to that presented by Roberts, Streeton and McCubbin: the Spirit is female, and does not toil in the bush, but dances among the trees, in harmony with nature. As Robert Hughes observed in The art of Australia (1966), Long’s nymphs were ‘a natural outgrowth of the bush, an extension of its soul’.
The Bulletin suggested on 9 October 1897 that Long’s first version of this subject was ‘the sweet seduction of Keats’, an equally apt description for his second version. Like its predecessor, this is a lyrical image and an unalloyed escape into the realms of imagination.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2014
From: Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2014
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