I enjoyed the display and its mix of subject matter from urban to rural and from landscapes to life figure work. Melbourne during the 1890s was a vibrant and bustling city (much as it is now) and a sense of this was conveyed by the works displayed by artists such as McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton, Condon and Sutherland. But are they truly impressionists? My understanding of that art movement is that its purpose is to show things as they look rather than as they are. This statement got me into a difficult position with a friend who responded by wondering whether that made impressionist artwork 'realist' (arguing that a photograph shows things as they look). I was hard-pressed to describe the difference and had to resort to saying things like "impressionist artwork is all fuzzy rather than crisp" and "it shows things as they look if one looks at things - um - passingly rather than closely".
At any rate the emphasis on light of Continental impressionists seems a small part of what those Australian artists did and (with the exception of Condon and Sutherland) they seem much more realist than anything. Many of the paintings stand as a full-colour record of places and persons from over a century ago. I was charmed by overhearing a conversation between a father and his very young (fourish) daughter on the topic of one painting from the 1880s depicting a paddock and farmhouse in (now) inner urban Hawthorn...
Daughter: So that is Hawthorn?
Daughter: Hawthorn where we live?
Daughter: That was Hawthorn a hundred and twenty years ago.
...How exciting this kind of realisation must be in a young life.
At the end of the wander I had decided that McCubbin is still my favourite. Many of his works seemed to have a sense of warmth and depth greater than the others. I suppose that may come in part from an 'impressionist' appreciation of light. My favourite McCubbin was never part of the exhibition however: The Pioneers (the storytelling triptych) is part of the general collection there and can be seen for free at anytime.