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image icon 'The pastoral pursuits of Australia', 1927 - asset 5

'The pastoral pursuits of Australia', 1927 - asset 5
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a large oil painting on canvas, measuring 160.0 cm x 440.0 cm, by Napier Waller (1894-1972) and painted in 1927 as one in a suite of paintings that make up a large mural. It shows an outdoor, sunlit scene in which a small group, two men and a woman holding a baby with two feathers in its hand, are gathered close to a large tree. They are dressed in simple wraps of material that leave the upper part of their bodies exposed to reveal their lean or muscular builds. To the left of the work is a yoked team of massive bullocks. To the right, a team of men with bullocks is preparing to pull down the tree that stands at the right of the image. The almost treeless land runs away to the shores of a lake or river. On the further shore is a small settlement, and stretching away beyond this is a gentle agricultural landscape dotted with a few hills.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a painting by Napier Waller - Waller is best known for his mural and stained-glass work for public buildings in Melbourne and the Australian War Memorial in Canberra; he is regarded as Australia's finest mural painter and, along with the sculptor Rayner Hoff (1894-1937), the most significant artist working in the neoclassical style of painting (an idealised style of art that flourished in Australia from the 1920s to the 1940s); Waller trained as an artist before enlisting in the armed forces in 1916 and saw frontline action in France; he was seriously wounded, resulting in his right arm, which was his natural drawing and writing arm, being amputated at the shoulder; during convalescence he taught himself to write, paint and draw with his left hand
  • is the first of Napier Waller's monumental murals - the painting is one of the large works that belonged to the mural in the grand dining room of the Menzies Hotel on the corner of King and Bourke Streets, Melbourne; commissioned in 1927, the mural was removed from the hotel in about 1957, ten years before the hotel was demolished; the mural's pastoral subject would have been particularly popular with the prosperous farmers and graziers who frequently stayed at the hotel
  • expresses the national mood in Australia in the mid- to later 1920s - this period was marked by a sense of real optimism for this country's future; the pain and memories of the First World War (1914-18) had begun to fade and Australians were beginning to dream about a prosperous future in which agricultural development would play a major role
  • represents Australia as an arcadian paradise - the term 'arcadian' is derived from the name of a remote mountainous area in ancient Greece that was renowned for the pastoral simplicity of its people (mainly shepherds and herdsman), who were imagined to live unsophisticated but happy lives; in a modern sense, 'arcadian' describes a happy, idealised or heavenly state or situation
  • demonstrates how some early-20th-century Australian artists maintained a strong belief in tradition - for many Australian artists the period between 1900 and 1930 was a time of modernist experiments; however, Waller and other artists, including the sculptor Rayner Hoff, deliberately returned to the conventions and motifs of classical art as a way of linking Australia to a perceived golden age of classical cultural achievement and as a means of inspiring an emerging post-First World War generation of young Australians to build for the future; the way the work is composed and the poses and gestures of the figures are direct references to the classical style of art
  • uses symbolism - this is evident in the use of the figures of mother and child, which are modernised Madonna and child motifs sourced in particular from Italian (15th century) Renaissance painting
  • celebrates the human body as a symbol of national virility - it has been suggested that the body became the chief metaphor or symbol for the dawn of the antipodean (Australian) golden age; as the trauma of the First World War faded Australia became focused on the idea of nationbuilding; bodybuilding and physical outdoor activity were seen as ways of helping to achieve this; the rippling muscles of Waller's males are like the inspirational images in men's bodybuilding magazines of the time
  • is closely linked to the work of other later-19th- to early-20th-century Australian artists who variously depicted Australia as a pastoral arcadia - these artists included Tom Roberts (1856-1931), Arthur Streeton (1867-1943), George W Lambert (1873-1930) and Hans Heysen (1877-1968)
  • reflects the positive self-image that underlies Australia's national anthem, 'Advance Australia fair' - the original lyrics were written by Peter Dodds McCormick in 1878, and promote Australia as a naturally endowed paradise for all - the anthem includes the words' 'We've golden soil and wealth for toil', and 'For those who've come across the seas, we've boundless plains to share'.