Front of the Gallery

About the Collection

European and North American Paintings and Sculpture

In the decade following its establishment in 1881, the Art Gallery of South Australia began building a permanent collection of contemporary European paintings and sculpture for Adelaide. Many of the works subsequently acquired were British and, like the Gallery’s two splendid works by the ‘ Olympian’ painter J.W. Waterhouse, The favourites of the Emperor Honorius, c.1883, and Circe Invidiosa, 1892, originated as prominent, well-reviewed exhibits at London’s Royal Academy annual summer exhibitions. But there were also Continental purchases, thanks to the Sydney and Melbourne International Exhibitions of 1879–81, and the Melbourne Centennial Exhibition of 1888, to which collections of paintings by living artists were brought from France, Belgium, The Netherlands, Germany, Italy and Spain. Prior to 1899, the Gallery acquired almost all of its Continental paintings in groups from the various national commissioners at those exhibitions. These tentative beginnings provided the foundation for all of the Gallery’s subsequent collecting of European art.

It was not until Sir Thomas Elder bequeathed part of his fortune to the Gallery in 1897 that it became possible to envision a broadly representative collection of European art. In the following year, Harry P. Gill, the Gallery’s Honorary Curator, travelled to Britain to buy works for Adelaide. Gill spent a large proportion of the Elder bequest on eighty-nine works of art, including thirty-four oil paintings, most of them purchased from or through Arthur Tooth & Sons. In one stroke, Gill had acquired works by Lawrence Alma-Tadema, Aubrey Beardsley, Émile Claus, William Fettes Douglas, Henri Fantin-Latour, Benjamin Leader, Frederic Leighton, Edward Poynter, Frederick Cayley Robinson, Giovanni Segantini, George Watts and William Bouguereau. Even though these were contemporary, or nearly contemporary works mostly by living artists, they were nevertheless the single most important group of acquisitions in the Gallery’s history since they brought to the collection a model of consistently high quality and comprehensiveness that in future would guide its collecting in other areas.

Throughout the twentieth century, contemporary British art continued to be an important area of concentration and the Gallery’s collection today provides an encyclopaedic survey of modern British art: works by the Pre-Raphaelite artists Edward Burne-Jones, William Holman Hunt and Dante Gabriel Rossetti; an icon of British sculpture, the cast of Alfred Gilbert’s Eros (1892–93) and key sculptures by Leighton and Hamo Thornycroft; masterpieces by members of the Camden Town Group (Walter Sickert, Harold Gilman, Malcolm Drummond and Charles Ginner); the Bloomsbury Group (Vanessa Bell, Duncan Grant and Roger Fry); Wyndham Lewis, Henri Gaudier Brzeska; as well as masters of the mid-twentieth century, Paul Nash, Stanley Spencer, Ben Nicholson, Francis Bacon and Lucian Freud.

It was not until the mid-twentieth century that the Gallery began to purchase in a systematic way European Old Master paintings and sculptures. The Gallery was greatly assisted in this difficult task by a succession of prudent advisers and agents based in London, commencing with Kenneth Clark (1949–54) and Hender Delves Molesworth, then Keeper of Sculpture at the Victoria and Albert Museum. Clark secured a number of French paintings by members of the Barbizon School, Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot and Charles François Daubigny, as well as important paintings by Salomon van Ruysdael and Gaspard Dughet. These promising beginnings led to the development in just under fifty years of a remarkable Old Master collection with the following important strengths: Elizabethan and Jacobean Portraiture (a follower of Hans Holbein, Cornelius Ketel, Robert Peake, George Gower, Marcus Gheeraerts the younger and Cornelius Johnson); Dutch Painting of the Golden Age (another, earlier masterpiece by Salomon van Ruysdael, works by Balthasar van der Ast, Jacob van Ruisdael, Philips Wouwerman, Willem van de Velde the younger, Gerrit Dou, Nicolaes Maes, studio of Jan Both, Adriaen Hendricksz. Verboom and Johannes Lingelbach); sixteenth- and seventeenth-century Italian art (Garofalo, Bonifazio de’ Pitati, Scipione Pulzone, Bartolomeo Passerotti, Giovanni Battista Caracciolo, Paul Bril, Claude Lorrain, Gaspard Dughet, Salvator Rosa, Luca Ferrari Luca Giordano and Guiseppe Recco, Francesco Solimena and Francesco Stringa); seventeenth- and to nineteenth-century British portraits and landscapes (Anthony van Dyck, Peter Lely, Godfrey Kneller, William Hogarth, Joseph Highmore, Allan Ramsay, Joshua Reynolds, Thomas Gainsborough, George Romney, Joseph Wright of Derby, Angelica Kauffmann, Thomas Lawrence, Henry Raeburn and J.M.W. Turner), and seventeenth- and eighteenth-century French painting (Jean-Baptiste Monnoyer, Nicolas de Largillière, Jean-Baptiste Marie Pierre, Jean-Jacques Bachelier and a rare suite of four landscapes, The times of day by Claude-Joseph Vernet).

Also in recent years the Gallery’s collection of late nineteenth- and early twentieth-century European sculpture has been transformed by the generous gift by William Bowmore AO OBE of a major bronze by Antoine Bourdelle, and by the purchase his splendid collection of twenty bronzes by Auguste Rodin.

Since the 1970s, the Gallery has broadened its collection of international contemporary art. The Gallery now has works by leading British artists such as Gilbert & George, Frank Auerback, Howard Hodgkin, Mark Boyle, Andy Goldsworthy, Richard Long, Leon Kossoff, Hamish Fulton.and Mona Hatoum. Prominent contemporary American and Continental artists now represented in the Gallery’s collection include: Andy Warhol, Donald Judd, Duane Hansen, Kenneth Noland, Felix Gonzales-Torres (USA); Mimmo Paladino and Enzo Cucchi (Italy); George Baselitz, Joseph Beuys, Gerhard Richter, Rainer Fetting, Ulrich Rückriem, A.R. Penck and Nikolaus Lang (Germany).

The Art Gallery is justly proud of the quality and scope of its European collection that, despite scarce resources and the considerable disadvantage of our location far from the hub of the international art market, has nevertheless assumed a prominent place among international art museums all over the world, to which we regularly lend works of art for major exhibitions. Perhaps more than any other area in the Gallery, the European collections have benefited from the passionate support, encouragement and generosity of successive generations of donors and benefactors. Five donors deserve special acknowledgement: James Ramsay AO and Diana Ramsay AO, James Fairfax AO, Mary Overton AM and William Bowmore AO OBE. As the collection expands, their indispensable contribution to the Gallery’s development not only endures but also grows in importance.