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image icon 'Red gold', 1913

'Red gold', 1913
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a 1913 oil painting by Hans Heysen (1877-1968). It captures a moment at the end of the day as a herdsman takes his cows home down a country road. In the foreground are two massive gum trees, behind which are stands of gums that stretch away towards a distant line of hills. The golden light, which floods the entire landscape, and the long raking shadows that run across the road and up the tree trunks, suggest that it is late afternoon - the sky has purplish tints often associated with this time of day. The herdsman can just be seen at the far right of the picture. The two cows at the rear of the herd are disappearing around the base of the large gum on the left, leaving the centre of the work almost empty.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a Federation era (1900-14) landscape - the large landscapes by Heysen, W C Piguenit (1836-1914), Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943) and Walter Withers (1854-1913) expressed the spirit of Federation by celebrating in their large canvases special qualities of 'Australian-ness', which the artists believed could best be found in the Australian bush; implied in the large scale of the works and their subjects (pastoral scenes and sweeping plains), and the dramatic play of sunlight, was the idea that these vast inland and lonely valleys offered special experiences that could almost be described as spiritual
  • introduces some of Heysen's legendary gum trees - in particular the tree on the left was used by Heysen in a number of his paintings; commentators have noted that Heysen was the first Australian artist to describe trees with a degree of specificity while at the same time using them as symbols of ancient, timeless nature; it has been said that Heysen made the Australian gum tree a central subject first for his own art and eventually for all Australians; the artist once commented that: 'There is something immensely exhilarating when tall white gums tower into the blue heavens - the subtle quality of the edges where they meet the sky - how mysterious'
  • is an excellent example of Heysen's ability to combine naturalism (the detailed modelling of the trees) and symbolism (the golden light and monumental trees) to create an image which celebrates the extraordinary nature of ordinary things and everyday moments
  • is an inspirational image in terms of its use of colour - the painting's title, 'Red gold', suggests something luxurious or sumptuous; the opalescent colours, such as the aquamarines, purples and golds, reflect Heysen's admiration for Venetian art, particularly the 16th-century artist Titian (Tiziano Vecellio (1487-1576)); it also shows the influence of the British artist Joseph Mallord William Turner (1775-1851), who was famous for his atmospheric landscapes saturated with light and colour; it has been observed that 'Red gold' marks the full flowering in Heysen's earlier works of a Venetian red-gold aesthetic, in which golden light floods the landscape under a turquoise sky
  • is an acknowledged masterpiece by Hans Heysen - Heysen was critically acclaimed in his own lifetime as one of the great figures in, and exponents of, Australian art 'in its most robust and truly national expression'; writers have commented that 'Red gold' successfully conveys a sense of the Australian rural landscape as being somehow heroic and grand, but at the same time a reflection of earthy values and day-to-day life
  • demonstrates Heysen's deep respect for rural labour as a reminder of an age-old relationship between humanity and nature - this attitude owes a great deal to Heysen's close familiarity with a northern European art tradition of social realism, which he encountered in the art of Rembrandt van Rijn (1606-69) and other 17th-century Dutch artists, it also owes much to the artist's reverence for the Barbizon School's depictions of peasant life (the Barbizon School was a group of mid-19th-century French artists who settled in the village of Barbizon in the forest of Fontainebleau, south of Paris).