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image icon 'Maria Island from Little Swanport, Van Diemen's Land', c1846

'Maria Island from Little Swanport, Van Diemen's Land', c1846
Art Gallery of South Australia

Description

This is an oil painting on canvas, measuring 29.0 cm high x 35.5 cm wide, by John Skinner Prout (1805-76). Painted around 1846, it shows an Indigenous Tasmanian sitting on an exposed headland with a stand of low trees behind him, which is overlooking a stretch of coastline and the sea. An isolated mountain can be seen in the distance across the stretch of water. The man has a cloak or blanket wrapped around him and some belongings (wrapped in a red cloth and tied to a stick) lying on the ground by his side. A single tree to the left of the figure leans into the picture.

Educational value

This resource is useful because it:

  • is a painting by John Skinner Prout - Prout's early landscape work shows the influence of his uncle, Samuel Prout (1783-1852), who had a significant reputation in England as a watercolourist specialising in picturesque views; a largely self-taught artist, John Skinner Prout was born in England and spent the years from 1840 to 1848 in Australia, travelling widely in New South Wales, Tasmania and Victoria; during that time he became one of the country's liveliest, and most adventurous and innovative painters and teachers, and promoted the arts in Australia by giving lectures, arranging exhibitions and joining art societies
  • communicates a sense of bright light and atmosphere - Prout was an exponent of outdoor sketching and frequently completed watercolour sketches out of doors; it has been said that he was the first artist working in Australia to convey pleasure in the brilliance of Australian summer sunlight; his landscapes were immediately recognisable by their sense of spontaneity; the freshness communicated by his landscapes has a great deal in common with Australian Impressionist art of the 1880s
  • is typical of a number of landscapes made by Prout while in Australia - the artist often repeated the view of a sweeping vista with a headland, hill or mountain and an associated long sandy beach heading off into the distance, backed by a far-off mountain range and framed by foreground trees
  • demonstrates a confident handling of the oil paint medium - a particular feature of 'Maria Island' is the use of small brushstrokes to ‘break up’ areas; this technique is evident in the treatment of the land and tree in the foreground, the group of smaller trees to the right and the clouds higher up in the picture; Prout's method of working was to use rapidly applied thin oil paint, which gave his paintings the freshness of his freely worked watercolours; the decisive brushstrokes, which define the figure, also point to the artist's confident drawing skills
  • demonstrates a skilful use of colour to achieve atmospheric effects - the composition is effectively divided into the earth tones of the foreground and the purple and blue tones of the middle and far distance; the sea, distant mountain and overarching sky are 'high key' in tone (very light), creating the effect that the sea and land beyond the immediate foreground are being bleached by the brightness of the light; adding to this impression is the artist's treatment of the distant land forms, which are suggested by minimal brushstrokes and loosely defined edges
  • contains references to Indigenous Tasmanians and to Mäori people - Prout was very interested in the Indigenous peoples of Australia and made numerous watercolour and pencil studies of Indigenous people in New South Wales, Victoria and Tasmania; in 1845 Prout visited Flinders Island, off the north-east coast of Tasmania, and drew portraits of Indigenous Tasmanians who had been resettled there; in 1846 Prout made sketches of five Mäoris who had been transported from New Zealand to Tasmania for armed rebellion during the New Zealand Wars (1845-72; these imprisoned men were taken soon after to Maria Island
  • references a historic site with links to Mäori history - the vista is a view from the Tasmanian mainland, near Little Swanport, looking towards Maria Island, which is 88 kilometres north-east of Hobart; a convict settlement was first established on the island in 1825 and, by the time Prout visited the area, this settlement held over 600 convicts; among this number were the five Mäoris referred to above, one of whom (Hohepa te Umuroa) died of tuberculosis and was buried on the island; Australian authorities later questioned the legality of the men's court martial and transportation, and in 1848 the remaining four were repatriated to New Zealand.