Australian Fine Artist

Have you ever asked why, amid famous Australian Impressionists’ names such as Streeton or McCubbin, there are few if any women’s names mentioned? Was the imposed expectation of being wives, mothers and homemakers, preventative to pursuing a career in the arts (Ambrus et al, 1992)? The development of Australian art, via understanding of its landscape, and introduction of Impressionist painting techniques from Europe, belonged not only to male artists. Women, though confined by social expectations, were active in the arts and society. This essay will discuss Jane Sutherland’s career in this apparently male-centric atmosphere of the 1880s and 1890s. Paintings from her body of work will briefly be examined, reflecting techniques; restrictions on her production of paintings, and arts practice, demonstrating her place in the development of art in Australia.

Obstruction Box Hill

Figure 1. The Painting Obstruction, Box Hill c. 1887 (Ramsay and Morrison 2006, 55).

Jane Sutherland grew up in a stimulating scientific and academic home atmosphere, but university was not open to women artists in Melbourne, until the late 19th century (Nugent, 2002). Exclusive conditions meant that Jane, like other women artists, mostly sought training from art guilds and local artists. This allowed them to avoid the unwelcome environment of male students and staff in universities (McCarthy, 2011). Jane learnt painting at the National Gallery School of Art and Design under the guidance of artists Eugene von Guerard, and Frederick McCubbin, who provided extra activities for students beyond the curriculum of the school (Lindsay, 2015). She was also influenced by the work of Scottish artists Robert Herdman and Peter Graham in the NGV.

Jane’s dedication to her arts education is evident in works such as Figure 1 (above). Clear tonal values and ability to capture the Australian landscape, reflect McCubbin’s methods in A Summer Morning Tiff 1886 (Gleeson, 1971), by use of colour and strong composition. Daily activities, and children exploring the countryside, like the little girl in this work, became a familiar theme in many of her paintings (Ramsay and Morrison, 2006). Rather than passive or victims in the landscape, exemplified in Frederick McCubbin’s Lost 1886 or On the Wallaby Track 1896, Jane portrayed her subjects interacting with or working in it, reflecting confidence and independence. Contemporary artist Louise Hearman applied a similar theme in her painting Untitled 659 1998.

Jane was determined to break through social boundaries inflicted on women in society by undertaking activities that were considered for men only. One of her achievements was becoming the only female to chair the meetings at the previously male dominated Buonoroti Club (Mead, 2011). Jane became active in movements to gain women the vote, and for women artists to be recognised as professionals (Public Record, 2013). She campaigned for women to have similar access to men for study, including life-drawing classes (Ambrus, 1992). Jane was also a member of the Field Naturalists Club of Victoria (Lyndsay, 2007), which took her into the landscape for research, developing observational skills demonstrated in her paintings. She actively promoted women entering such traditionally male activities.

Numb Fingers working while the eye of morn-

Figure 2. The Painting Numb Fingers Working While the Eye of Morn is yet Bedimmed with Tears c. 1888 (Lindsay 2007, 235).

Jane’s paintings reflect her mastery of Impressionists’ methods of painting and colour theory. Her willingness to venture into the Australian landscape is reflected in her understanding of light and colour (Lindsay, 2007). The late 1880s to the 1890s saw her at her peak producing works exemplified in Figure 2 (above). The view of a woman picking bracken at sunrise shows active participation of women in menial labour (Nugent, 2002). The limited palette and atmospheric treatment help unite the painting by use of a dominant colour to tone down the values throughout the scene. The result is a painting where all colours relate to each other and none look out of place. This demonstrates Jane’s mastering of Academic Training techniques, making it equal in quality to peers Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts.

To the exclusion of women artists, the male-centric network operating in Melbourne was centred on gathering in clubs and other venues to network. Often including drinking, smoking and prostitutes, artists invited wealthy and influential collectors in hopes of sales, which left wives and female artists like Jane out, as these were considered an improper atmosphere (Astbury, 1987). Jane was also restricted when working at the plein air painting camps, where she packed up gear each day to complete paintings in her studios from sketches that were more transportable (Lindsay, 2015). She would have been significantly disadvantaged in these circumstances, by her inability to network with collectors, buyers and fellow artists to the same degree as the men.

Society thought it unsuitable for middle class women to pursue an arts career that included travel, or employment in professions, until well into the 20th century. During the 1890s, male artists left for Europe and the UK, often financially supported by wives who had a private income, or took on menial jobs (McKenzie, 2000). Other male artists like Streeton worked as clerks, or in the case of Conder, as illustrators for books and newspapers to raise funds. Unable to travel overseas or work in perceived male professions, Jane Sutherland built an arts practice, teaching in her studios in Collins and Swanston Streets, close to E. Philips Fox and Tom Roberts’ studios, and the thriving arts market (Ambrus, et al. 1992). Contrary to what society deemed suitable, she was determined to build a career as a professional artist and art teacher.

first green after the drought 1892

Figure 3. The Painting First Green After the Drought c. 1892 (Lindsay 2007, 234).

In Figure 3, Jane Sutherland demonstrates influences from French Impressionism, of which she quickly took advantage. Her use of yellows and greens are similar to Streeton’s landscape Near Heidelberg 1890 (Lane, 1999). Jane’s similar works are: On the Last Tramp 1888, To The Dandenong 1894, Far-a-Field 1896, The Harvest Field 1897 and A Midsummer Day. The colours and atmosphere reflect her understanding of composition of rural scenes typical of Impressionists painters. Colleague Clara Southern, who shared studio space, demonstrated similar techniques in her landscapes.

the mushroom gatherers

Figure 4. The Painting The Mushroom Gatherers c. 1895 (Lindsay 2007, 236).

During the 1890s Jane incorporated bolder use of colour. She introduced vivid blues, violets and earth pigments, with palette knife application for texture (Lindsay, 2007). Her later works such as A Cabbage Garden 1896 and The Mushroom Gatherers (above) reflect Millet’s influence on E. Phillips Fox, which she added to her repertoire (Manning, 2010). The female workers are reflective of Millet’s subjects, which portray rural workers labouring in the fields. Rather than being depicted as small, and at the mercy of the harsh Australian landscape, these women are actively working within it, central and dominant in the composition.

field naturalists-1896

Figure 5. The Painting Field Naturalists c. 1896 (Lindsay 2007, 224).

Jane exhibited at Federal exhibitions in 1889 and 1893 at the South Australian Society of Arts. She showed regularly at the Victorian Academy of Arts, Australian Artists’ Association, and Victorian Artists’ Society during the 1880s and 1890s (Lindsay, 2015). Her painting, Field Naturalists (above), which makes use of colour that accurately reflects the Australian landscape, is in the permanent collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Although exhibiting skills comparable to male artists like McCubbin or Streeton, works like this sold for significantly less. Jane was not shown in any major collection until 1962, and again in 1972 (Ambrus, 1992). This is in disparity to the recognition of male peers, evidenced by the numbers of works purchased and exhibited by major galleries, written about, and discussed in schools and universities (Good, 2001). Her work was perceived by critics as feminine, or amateur, rather than judged on its merit.

Jane Sutherland never became a totally self-supporting artist and was limited to some teaching, and smaller paintings, after suffering a stroke in 1904. Her career ended in 1911, after the death of her brother (Lindsay, 2015). Jane died at home in 1928, and was buried in the Box Hill cemetery. Although she worked diligently during her life, she remained financially dependant on her successful middle-class family, unable to leave an influential legacy similar to her male colleagues of the Heidelberg School, for later artists.

Australian art has been male dominated for over two hundred years, overlooking artists such as Jane Sutherland, who worked with and learnt from artists such as McCubbin and Streeton, whilst creating her own unique body of work. Paintings reflecting mastery of the techniques of impressionist painting such as use of colour and tone in The Mushrooms Gatherers, Field Naturalists or Obstruction, Box Hill are examples of how social restrictions didn’t prevent her from pursuing her career. It is unfortunate that the imbalance of representation of women artists like Jane Sutherland continues in the 21st century. Major exhibitions and permanent collections in national and regional galleries, by overlooking many female artists; persist in telling only part of the whole story of development of art in Australia.



Ambrus. C., et al. 1992. Australian Impressionism. A Gender Perspective.
Accessed June 8.

Astbury, Leigh. 1987. “Cash Buyers Welcome: Australian Artists and Bohemianism in the 1890s.” Journal of Australian Studies. 11 (20): 23-37.
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Anon. 2013. Jane Sutherland. Public Record Office of Victoria.
Accessed June 12.

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Accessed June 25.

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Accessed June 17.

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Biography 12. Accessed June 3.

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Accessed June 17.

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Crossroads 5 (2): 35-44. Accessed June 16.

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Accessed June 12.

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Accessed June 4.

Nugent, Dr Maria, Dr Paul Ashton and Professor Paula Hamilton. 2002. Women’s Employment and Professionalism in Australia. ACT. Australian Heritage Commission. Accessed June 4.

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Taylor, Elena. 2013. Australian Impressionists in France. Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria.



Anon. 2015. Jane Sutherland.
Accessed June 15.

Anon. 2005. Jane Sutherland (1853-1928), Australian Landscape Painter.
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Sanders, Anne and Jim Berryman. 2014. Visual Arts: The Encyclopaedia of Women and Leadership in Twentieth Century Australia. Accessed June 4.


Figure 1. Obstruction, Box Hill c. 1887 (Ramsay and Morrison 2006, 55).
Ramsay, Gael and Gordon Morrison. 2006. Ballarat Fine Art Gallery: Highlights from the Collection. Victoria: Ballarat Fine Art Gallery.

Figure 2. Numb fingers Working While the Eye of Morn is Yet Bedimmed with Tears c. 1888
Lindsay, Frances. 2007. Jane Sutherland. Australian Impressionism. Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria.

Figure 3. First Green After the Drought c. 1892 (Lindsay 2007, 234).
Lindsay, Frances. 2007. Jane Sutherland. Australian Impressionism. Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria.

Figure 4. The Mushroom Gatherers c. 1895 (Lindsay 2007, 236).
Lindsay, Frances. 2007. Jane Sutherland. Australian Impressionism. Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria.

Figure 5. Field Naturalists c. 1896 (Lindsay 2007, 224).
Lindsay, Frances. 2007. Jane Sutherland. Australian Impressionism. Victoria: National Gallery of Victoria.

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