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image icon 'North Head, Sydney Harbour'

'North Head, Sydney Harbour'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a watercolour measuring 45.3 cm x 64.8 cm, that presents a sparkling view of Sydney Harbour, by the Australian colonial artist Conrad Martens (1801-78). The dramatic cliffs of the North Heads can be seen in the distance as if floating on a sheet of shimmering light-blue water, while beyond the Heads the ocean fades away into infinity. The viewpoint adopted by the artist is high up on a headland, which is represented by the very dark thicket of densely packed trees and bushes seen in the foreground. Despite the apparent wildness and remoteness of this bushland setting, a stylishly dressed young woman (accompanied by her pet dog) is perched on the edge of a clearing - her pose suggests that she may be sketching.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an excellent example of picturesque landscape painting - the late 18th and early 19th centuries saw the emergence of 'the Picturesque' style of landscape painting, which was strongly associated with British art and artists of period; 'Picturesque' simply means 'like a picture'; working in a picturesque style required artists to observe rules and conventions that related to the suitability and interpretation of certain kinds of subject matter
  • is an outstanding painting by Conrad Martens, one of the most significant landscape artists working in the colony of New South Wales in the mid-colonial period - Martens arrived in NSW in 1835 and soon established a strong market for his picturesque views of homestead and harbour; Martens had earlier travelled as an artist on Charles Darwin's 'Beagle', an experience that stimulated an interest in observing and recording meteorological phenomena
  • shows how picturesque landscape artists of this period, like Martens, carefully edited and composed details to build a sense of dramatic mood; the dark massing of the landforms in the lower half of 'North Head' acts as a framing device for the most important feature of the picture, the distant headlands; the use of foreground details such a trees and figures is also an often-used framing device in the classical and romantic landscape painting of the 17th and 18th centuries
  • reflects the sustained influence of the French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-82) - Lorrain's idealised interpretations of countrysides and remote locations offered a ready formula for European-trained artists who struggled to 'tame' the untidy and 'featureless' Australian bush
  • demonstrates impressive control of the watercolour medium, particularly in its ability to exploit translucency to create a sense of atmospheric light - as a young art student in England, Martens received excellent training in watercolour painting at a time when outstanding British artists, including Joseph Mallord William Turner (c1775-1851), Copley Fielding (1787-1855), John Sell Cotman (1782-1842) and Peter de Wint (1784-1849), were exploring the potential of the medium to create powerful atmospheric impressions
  • is a reminder of the role played by artists in opening Australians' eyes to the beauty of wilderness - the painting cleverly evokes a sense of its untouched and untamed nature
  • reflects the popular taste of the period for picturesque interpretations of the Australian landscape that offered the reassurance that the savage bush and fearful wilderness had been tamed and its unique beauties had finally been revealed.