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image icon 'Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite'

'Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is an oil painting, measuring 71.2 cm x 86.4 cm, by the Australian colonial artist Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901). It shows a group of Aboriginal people camped near a large rocky outcrop. It is late afternoon and the setting sun has cast the foreground rocks and figures in shadow. However, there is sufficient light to see a variety of different activities occurring: at the centre of the picture a man, carrying a freshly caught wallaby, can be seen walking towards a child, who is welcoming his father's return from the hunt. There are also two people sitting around a fire that is near their traditional shelters. Another two Indigenous people (accompanied by their dogs) are drinking from a well-supplied creek or pool. The clearing is surrounded by thick vegetation and trees, although one tree high on a rock overlooking the encampment looks half-dead. A gap in the trees and rocks reveals thickly wooded bushland that stretches away towards a range of hills. Some distant spirals of smoke indicate that other people are nearby, perhaps Aboriginals, but more likely settlers clearing the land.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is an outstanding example of a distinctive body of Australian art, usually made by settler or explorer artists, that took as its subject the depiction of Aboriginal people - this style of art is not always accurate in its documentation of traditional life and material culture, but invariably reveals the perceptions and values that colonial Europeans held in relation to Aboriginal people and culture
  • is an excellent example of a genre of Australian art that took as its subject the idea that Australian Aboriginals were a 'nearly extinct' or 'dying race' - other significant artists to explore this theme were Alexander Schramm (1814-64), Robert Dowling (1827-86) and H J Johnstone (1835-1907); Johnstone's much-copied painting 'Evening Shadows', 1880, in the collection of the Art Gallery of South Australia, is the last major painting of this kind
  • illustrates how artists (like von Guérard) used a variety of visual symbols to convey a range of information and perceptions relating to the theme of cultural extinction; in 'Stony Rises' the dominant symbol is light, and the setting sun and the shadows it casts are metaphors for the 'end of days' for Aboriginal people; the symbolism of the half-dead tree (a native blackwood tree that resembles the vertical Roman pines of European graveyards) reinforces this idea, as do the basalt rocks or 'stony rises' (that some commentators have remarked look like ramparts of an ancient city); the looming monolithic qualities of these rocks suggest that they could be Stonehenge-like monuments for an almost-vanished race
  • demonstrates von Guérard's sophisticated understanding of the traditions of landscape painting - this style of the painting is a blend of southern and northern European explorations of landscape as a subject
  • reveals the influence of other artists on von Guérard's work - the landscapes of 17th-century French artist Claude Lorrain (1600-1682) are referenced in the classical balancing of light and dark, the dissolving distant vista, the pool of water in the foreground, the tranquil mood and warm twilight sky, as well as the apparent ease with which the figures inhabit their environment; the influence of other artists (Italian Salvator Rosa (1615-1673) and German Caspar David Friedrich (1774-1840), in particular) can be seen in the darker and more melancholic notes that lurk in the painting's shadows
  • is a fascinating image full of puzzling contradictions; at first glance the scenario appears to be optimistic - the small community appears to be living in an Aboriginal Eden: it has shelter, fire, water and food, all that it needs to survive, but then the shadows start to creep across this interpretation and the gloom in which the people are cast takes on a more sinister note; a closer look into this gloom reveals a native plant (at lower left) being strangled by an European blackberry bush
  • references particular events in the colonial and Aboriginal history of Victoria; the Stony Rises are located between present-day Camperdown and Colac in the Western District of Victoria - formed by volcanic activity, they are striking geological phenomena; as a relatively unproductive agricultural area the Rises survived as a deeply undulating island, to which the local Indigenous people retreated during white settlement; when von Guérard visited this area in April 1857 there were only 16 survivors of the local Aboriginal (Colac) group remaining; as he noted in a diary, 'It is sad to see how the poor creatures are demoralized by the white man's influence'.