Truth and Passion in von Guérard

April 29, 2011 Updated: October 1, 2015

Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865 by Eugene von Guerard (born Austria 1811, lived in Australia 1852-82, Europe 1882-1901, died England 1901).
Tea Trees near Cape Schanck, Victoria 1865 by Eugene von Guerard (born Austria 1811, lived in Australia 1852-82, Europe 1882-1901, died England 1901).
The most intriguing and exciting thing about appreciating visual art is finding the voice of the artist and then starting to understand it.

It may be shocking to admit it, but if you distill the message of the artist right down to the bare bones, you always end up with words: words about the human condition, the satirical eye, politics, the self-destructive, the shock, the display of the status quo, the spiritual, the question mark.

But the equation doesn’t work the other way around; naturally, the words can’t then be strung together to form the actual complete work; for starters, the nuances, the physicality, and the impact would be lost.

Facing the work of Eugene von Guérard, it is deceptively easy to presume to understand his voice.

At first, there’s a primeval, joyous shout, “Come, see this!” His paintings clearly incite awe and wonder of the same sort that he most surely experienced in the picturesque settings he chose to depict.

Austrian born, Eugene von Guérard was just 41 years old when he came to Australia, and he was a well-traveled and an accomplished artist. He initially came out to look for gold, but the little gold he did find was just enough to be made into two rings, one for himself and the other for his wife, Louise Arnz.

Meanwhile, he fell in love with the Australian landscape and undertook expeditions to remote areas of South Australia, Tasmania, New South Wales, and throughout Victoria. But the compulsion to travel was for one purpose: to depict the landscape in the minutest detail.

Nature in Detail

Dr. Ruth Pullin, guest curator at the National Gallery of Victoria, explains that unlike the French who went out and painted directly from nature and painted very free atmospheric sketches, von Guérard was a student of the Düsseldorf Academy, which encouraged painting nature in all its detail. They would crouch on the ground to achieve a ground level perspective and a close range view so that they could capture the details of all the plants.

Michael Varcoe-Cocks, conservator and exhibition co-curator, has more in common with the painter than he may be willing to admit.

Varcoe-Cocks spent the better part of 11 years restoring von Guérard’s paintings, examining each of his brush strokes through a magnifying glass and using X-ray technology to determine what lies beneath the surface of von Guérard’s canvases.

Varcoe-Cocks told The Epoch Times that von Guérard was very aware and disciplined about looking at moisture content in the air and in the vegetation: “He wasn’t just trying to render a tree in the right location, but he’s also thinking about the species of tree, its level of moisture uptake and its age. I still cannot believe the level of detail and his commitment to each work,” Varcoe-Cocks said.

Predictably, the word obsession comes to mind, but the question remains: Why? A lot has been said about von Guérard’s work as having scientific value.

North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko 1863 by Eugene von Guerard. Oil on canvas, 66.5 x 116.8cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, was purchased 1973. (Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria)
North-east view from the northern top of Mount Kosciusko 1863 by Eugene von Guerard. Oil on canvas, 66.5 x 116.8cm, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, was purchased 1973. (Courtesy of National Gallery of Victoria)
Varcoe-Cocks elaborates on this point: “He really felt that there were many facets to an artwork. It could be seen as a beautiful object, it could be hung in a domestic space, or increasingly he hoped that it could be hung in public institutions, and they could inform the public about nature. So if you wanted to study nature or geology, but you had no access to remote mountains, you could walk into an art gallery, and scientists could discuss it. His paintings were actually used that way—for scientific discussions.”

But reducing his work to this kind of educational endeavor—no matter how altruistic—equates to discrediting it.

Power and Beauty

What remains hard to express in words is the power and beauty of von Guérard’s artwork, because he chose to use every ounce of his being to express his love of the natural world, leaving out no small detail, through each minute brush stroke made by his own hand—and all this with the aim of having a truthful, unadulterated depiction of nature as is.

Von Guérard wanted us to see the Grampian Mountains without the von Guérard, Varcoe-Cocks said.

“You see the commitment. He’s painting for himself. These paintings take many months, and he never gets reimbursed for the time involved, and the determination to depict the amazing light and this jewel-like effect is almost a form of obsession, almost verging on a religious process for himself,” Varcoe-Cocks said, adding, “And he doesn’t stop his entire life.”

As a modern-day visitor, as you leave behind the flood of high-definition imagery, LCD screens, urgent scrolling messages, and the automatic sliding doors of the National Gallery of Victoria close behind you, Eugene von Guérard will be waiting to pull you in again, and you might find it hard to leave.

And then you may ask yourself, “How come I’ve never been to the Grampians, or Cape Schanck, or Mount Kosciusko?”

For those who have visited the places depicted by von Guérard, the experience may be even more poignant.

“There’s a romantic memory that people have of a certain location, and to see them again in painted form is different to seeing it in a photograph or on a computer,” Varcoe-Cocks concluded. “There’s something about the physicality of an object which is almost overwhelming.”

Overwhelming is quite apt, but it’s just a word.

Eugene von Guérard: Nature Revealed, the National Gallery of Victoria, The Ian Potter Centre until August 7, 2011, admission fees apply. Visit ngv.vic.gov.au for further information.