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image icon 'Group of natives of Tasmania'

'Group of natives of Tasmania'
Art Gallery of South Australia

Description

This is an 1860 oil painting by Robert Dowling (1827-86). It shows a group of Indigenous Tasmanian people in a dark, brooding landscape. Several people are gathered around a campfire. They are wearing animal-skin cloaks and shell necklaces, and some hold spears or boomerangs. A man and a woman, who appear to have been hunting, are about to join the group - the man is carrying a creature on a stick over his shoulder. The painting measures 45.6 cm x 91.4 cm.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is one of a significant group of images of Indigenous Tasmanian people made by artists working in Australia in the early- to mid-19th century
  • was created as a commemorative image - it was widely believed at the time (early- to mid-1800s) that the entire Indigenous Tasmanian race would soon become extinct; artists such as Dowling, Benjamin Duterrau (1767-1851), Benjamin Law (c1806-82), John Glover (1767-1849), John Skinner Prout (1805-76), Ludwig Becker (1808-61) and Thomas Bock (1790-1855) all made images of Indigenous Tasmanian people for posterity
  • is the last image of this unique cultural group to be painted during the 19th century
  • depicts individual Indigenous Tasmanians - the woman sitting directly in front of the tree stump is Wortabowigee, who was married to Tunaminnerwate, the smiling man carrying the creature on a stick; both worked with George Augustus Robinson, who conducted conciliation activities in Tasmania and Victoria; Woureddy, shown seated in front of the fire with his hands clasped around his knees, was known as a 'doctor' (or 'medicine man') and was married to Trugannini, the most celebrated of all Indigenous Tasmanians
  • is characteristic of the style used by Dowling to depict Indigenous people - the figures look like set pieces; they stand or sit as still as statues, thus communicating strong feelings of sadness (melancholy) and brooding resignation; the smiles on the faces of the two hunters do nothing to change an overall mood of lifelessness, and it is as if they have returned to a community of statues or the living dead; this style of depiction is in contrast to those made by other artists (particularly Thomas Bock), who favoured capturing extreme likenesses of individuals and details of clothing, body ornamentation and utensils
  • uses symbolism - there are no live trees, the only standing tree is dead and another has broken near ground level and fallen, symbolising the fate of a dispossessed people in a land that is no longer theirs; the use of dark colours confirms the sombre mood of the work; for contemporary audiences, this painting is a dramatic reminder of the tragic history of the Indigenous Tasmanian people in the colonial era
  • is a smaller version of a larger canvas of the same title, made by Dowling while studying and working in London in 1859 - he also made a number of studies of the Indigenous people who lived in the Western Districts of Victoria in the mid 1850s
  • was composed from watercolour studies of Indigenous peoples made by Tasmanian artist Thomas Bock - it is unlikely that Dowling ever saw any Indigenous Tasmanians
  • offers insights into prevailing colonial perceptions of Indigenous people as a 'doomed race' - the 'fact' that Indigenous Tasmanians were 'wiped out', as implied by this painting, is contradicted by the contribution Indigenous Tasmanian people continue to make to Australian contemporary culture and life.