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image icon 'The Emu'

'The Emu'
Art Gallery of South Australia


This is a watercolour study by Richard Browne (1776-1824), measuring 33.5 cm x 27.8 cm, that shows an emu poised on a small rise. The creature is shown with one foot extended, which makes it look as if it is about to step out of the picture. It was painted in 1820.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is typical of a kind of art that began to appear in colonial New South Wales around 25 years after initial settlement (1788) - by this time there was a growing need not only for studies of Aboriginal people and views of the settlement's progress, but also of homesteads, pastoral development and the natural landscape, including flora and fauna
  • references the role played by early settlement artists (including John Lewin (1770-1819) and Joseph Lycett (1774-1828)) in making a contribution to the scientific exploration and documentation of Australia in the first half-century of settlement
  • is a work by one of the most enterprising artists active in NSW in the early 19th century - Richard Browne, an Irish convict, arrived in Australia in 1811, where he helped to fill the continuing demand for natural history subjects of animals and birds in watercolour; he also produced multiple images of Aboriginal individuals, in which he used the Regency-style device of the silhouette to portray personality types; although these works were neither sympathetic portraits nor accurate anthropological recordings, they still appealed to a wide public audience
  • is an example of how artists like Browne (and some other early colonial artists) used design systems to depict natural appearances - Browne was operating from a late-18th-century European perspective, which saw Australia as a strange place filled with exotic species of plants and creatures; his animals and birds are stylised; face to face, an emu might look like a tough, sometimes scraggy individual, but in this interpretation it has been translated into a delicate creature with the elegance of a dancing Brolga; the absence of any kind of setting, apart from a rock and a few low bushes, make this illustration look like a logo, and this effect is also emphasised by the manner in which the artist has shown the bird in profile and exaggerated the curve of its body and neck
  • is an example of the kinds of interpretations of native Australian creatures that appealed to public taste at the time - Browne repeated many versions of this popular image of the emu and another of a lyrebird whose tail is shaped in the form of a Grecian harp (lyre)
  • helps to give an insight into the minds and imaginations of early settlers encountering Australian creatures for the first time.