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image icon 'Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia'

'Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large oil painting (120.6 cm x 184.1 cm), created by H J Johnstone, that depicts a twilight scene on the backwaters of the Murray River in the late 19th century. The fading light has almost turned the giant red river gums that dominate the scene into silhouettes, exaggerating the bulk of their trunks and the twisted angles of their limbs. Two Indigenous people are sitting alongside a bark hut and a campfire - a third person is about to cross a fallen tree that spans the river to join them. This is an apparently timeless, pre-British colonial scene; however, a small clue, the blanket around the shoulders of the old man, reveals that contact between Indigenous people and British colonists has occurred. The nagging thought that this small group of people might be all that remains of an entire community alters the meaning and mood of this striking image. This could be a freeze-frame from an antipodean horror story.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an excellent example of an approach to landscape painting popular in Australia in the later 19th century, known as 'picturesque landscape' - this style of painting involved capturing the moods of nature through dramatic interpretations of remarkable natural motifs such as waterfalls, mountains and rivers
  • demonstrates the way in which European models of picturesque landscape painting were adapted by Australian colonial artists to offer city audiences dramatic interpretations of the Australian bush - by the late 19th century, Australia had become one of the most urbanised countries in the world, with most of its population concentrated in the coastal capital cities; even so, many city dwellers still identified with the bush, including Johnstone, who 'romanced' it for this audience
  • is a significant work by Johnstone, a painter and photographer who established a reputation as a painter of picturesque views - depictions of the tranquil waters of the Murray, Goulburn and Murrumbidgee rivers form the greater part of his output; majestic red river gums often featured in his landscapes, which were frequently populated with Indigenous people, or British explorers and pioneers
  • is an outstanding example of the way in which some artists working in the late 19th century combined photographic realism with symbolism - the fading light at the end of the day (no matter how realistically depicted) often represented the end of something; in this instance it is the Australian Indigenous peoples, who were assumed at the time to be on the brink of extinction; 'Evening shadows' further alludes to this notion through the powerful sense of stillness created by the mirror-smooth water and the gathering gloom
  • was the first work of art to be acquired by the Art Gallery of South Australia
  • is among the most reproduced works in the Gallery's collection - it has been a favourite with Gallery visitors since it was acquired
  • is perhaps the most copied painting in Australian art - from the late 1880s, 'Evening shadows' was regularly copied by art students; more than 90 copies of the painting (made by both skilled artists and enthusiastic amateurs) are known to exist.