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Australia's Impressionists: In focus

  1. World Impressionism
  2. Urban Australia
  3. The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition
  4. National landscape
  5. John Russell

The 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition

In the winter of 1889, Tom Roberts (1856–1931), Arthur Streeton, and Charles Conder (1868–1909) staged what they called the '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition', held in downtown Melbourne. The title referred to the small size (roughly 9 by 5 inches) of most of the 183 ‘impressions’ that made up the exhibition. It also served as a declaration of the artists’ identification with the international movement of Impressionism, about which the curious Australian public had read so much, and yet seen so little.

Many of the works in the '9 by 5' exhibition were painted on cigar-box lids, obtained cheaply from a friend of the artists. These were readily transportable and allowed Roberts, Streeton, and Conder to capture at great speed the ‘impression’ of a transient moment – its light and mood.

Left: '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition' catalogue cover; Right: Tom Roberts, ‘By the Treasury’, 1889. Purchased through the NGV Foundation by The Hugh D. T. Williamson Foundation, Founder Benefactor, 2002 © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Left: '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition' catalogue cover. Purchased 2006 © National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne; Right: Tom Roberts, ‘By the Treasury’, 1889. Purchased through the NGV Foundation by The Hugh D. T. Williamson Foundation, Founder Benefactor, 2002
© National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Though no doubt conscious of the artist-led exhibitions initiated by the French Impressionists in Paris in the 1870s, they took their cue for the '9 by 5' exhibition more directly from the American-British artist James Abbott McNeill Whistler (1834–1903). Roberts would have seen Whistler’s small-scale, atmospheric landscapes while in London, and in 1885 Whistler sent a painting to Melbourne as part of an exhibition of contemporary British art.

The '9 by 5' exhibition was also very ‘Whistlerian’ in its installation and presentation: the dense arrangement of pictures; the Liberty silks draped around them; and the wide, flat frames, sometimes embellished with metallic paint, were all characteristics of the fashionable Aesthetic style associated with Whistler. They also ensured the exhibition, and the art in it, would appeal to a sophisticated Melbourne society.

Charles Conder, ‘Dandenongs from Heidelberg’, about 1889. M.J.M. Carter AO Collection through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2012, to mark the 123rd anniversary of the '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition', August 1889. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

Charles Conder, ‘Dandenongs from Heidelberg’, about 1889. M.J.M. Carter AO Collection through the Art Gallery of South Australia Foundation 2012, to mark the 123rd anniversary of the '9 by 5 Impression Exhibition', August 1889. Donated through the Australian Government's Cultural Gifts Program © Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide

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