Painters come from many different backgrounds, and it’s common for them to have done something different before painting full-time. However, I think that Eugene von Guérard (1811-1901) is exceptional as being the only artist that I know of who became successful after being a gold prospector. Not that that was his original career either.
Von Guérard was born into an artistic family in Vienna, Austria, where his father painted miniatures at the court of Emperor Francis I. He learned to paint in childhood, and ended up in Rome between 1830-32. There was already a small German-speaking community of artists there, including the radical Nazarenes, more properly known as the Lukasbund. He then headed north to Düsseldorf in Germany, where he trained as a landscape painter at the Academy of Art from 1841. At the time, this was one of the leading schools of landscape painting, and combined a traditional approach with a new realism based on nature itself.
His early influences, which can be seen throughout his work, include Claude Lorrain, Nicolas Poussin, and Salvator Rosa.
The earliest painting of his that I can find from this period is Marcianello near Mt Gorniano, On the Mountain Road from Naples to Rome which is thought to have been made during one of his visits to Italy between 1826-41. I apologise for the poor quality of this image.
Southern Coastal Landscape with Palm Trees from 1844 appears to have been painted somewhere on the coast of Italy, with its classical ruins in the middle distance. This view is rich with the dusk light typical of Claude Lorrain’s coastal landscapes.
But von Guérard saw an opportunity overseas: early in 1851, a German physician prospecting near the town of Ballerat in Victoria, Australia, was shown some samples of locally-found gold. A succession of discoveries in the area during that summer led to gold fever in Melbourne, and the Victorian Gold Rush. Von Guérard sailed from Gravesend, England, and joined the prospectors in 1852.
Sadly, von Guérard was unsuccessful in finding any valuable minerals, but his sketches made among the prospectors soon attracted their attention. He then started to paint more ambitious views, including this of Warrenheip Hills near Ballarat from 1854.
He had an initial fascination for the continent’s very different flora and fauna, shown in this view of Ferntree Gully in the Dandenong Ranges from 1857. This mountainous area to the east of Melbourne is now a National Park.
Claude might have been proud of the warm light in von Guérard’s Stony Rises, Lake Corangamite (1857). This lake is Australia’s largest permanent saline lake, in south-west Victoria.
Surprisingly, at a time when plein air oil sketching was taking European painting by storm, even von Guérard’s more impromptu paintings appear to have been the result of long hours in the studio. He painted this Bush Fire Between Mount Elephant and Timboon in 1857, showing the forested plain in this part of west Victoria ablaze. The first European to set foot in Timboon only did so in 1845, a dozen years before von Guérard painted this, and it wasn’t settled by Europeans until 1875.
Von Guérard spent some time to the south-west of Melbourne, at a volcanic lake not far from Camperdown, shown in this view From the Verandah of Purrumbete (1858). This lake is in a large volcanic crater, and continues to attract day-trippers and tourists.
Purrumbete from Across the Lake (1858) is an immaculately painted pastoral view of the lake and surrounding hills, which reverses the previous view.
He travelled further east to reach the Victorian Alps, the southern end of the Australian Alps, where he painted this View of the Gippsland Alps, from Bushy Park on the River Avon in 1861. These ultra-panoramic views are painted on two panoramic canvases.
He was also commissioned by settlers to paint their property, in this case Mr. John King’s Station, in 1861. It’s presumably that Mr King who is seen down by the picket fence.
By the early 1860s, von Guérard’s reputation as a landscape painter was growing, and it was time for him to change to views more commensurate with his stature, as I’ll show in the second and concluding article next week.