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Introduction to Australian colonial art

What was the colonial art period in Australia?

The colonial period of Australian history began with the first settlement of Australia. Governor Phillip claimed the land as a British colony when he landed at Sydney Cove on Saturday 26 January 1788.

The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788
The Founding of Australia. By Capt. Arthur Phillip R.N. Sydney Cove, Jan. 26th 1788
original [oil] sketch [1937] by Algernon Talmage R.A. (State Library of NSW)

The colonial period officially ended with Federation on Tuesday 1 January 1901 when Australia was born as a nation. For definition purposes, however, the transition from colonial art ended earlier with the appearance of what is called the Heidelberg School of painters from 1886. It was at this time that artists began to paint in a self-consciously Australian manner and in correspondence with Australia's growing sense of identity and nationhood.

This web site divides colonial art into three sections.

Precolonial - Australian prehistory, discovery and pre-colonial art up till 1788
Early colonial art - from 1788 to about 1860
Late colonial art - 1860s to the beginnings of the Heidelberg School in the 1880s

Like most histories, Australian colonial art is best understood chronologically and newcomers should start with the first section, the Precolonial period.


Creating Australia: 200 years of art 1788-1988. (1988) (out of print.)
Bonyhady, Tim (1987) The colonial image, Australian painting 1800-1880
Bonyhady, Tim (1985) Images in opposition: Australian landscape painting 1801-1890
Hughes, Robert (1970) The art of Australia
Smith, Bernard (1979) (2nd ed.) Documents on art and taste in Australia. The colonial period 1770-1914

End of introduction

To precolonial Next

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Through colonial eyes

Student activity booklet Student activity booklet

About this web site

For everyone interested in early Australian history. It contains a wide survey of Australian colonial art and provides a sound working understanding and appreciation of this period of Australian art history.
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The images used in this web site are in the public domain because their copyright has expired.
Teachers and students

The content on this web site was originally developed for year 11 art students in Western Australia.

For a deeper study, as required in university level courses, students should read one or more of the excellent books on this period of Australia's art history that will be listed in their faculty's course information. The Art Ellipse book shop has a selection of some excellent books.

A worksheet (student activity booklet) can be used in with the material on this website. The activities are taxonomically structured and test for a thorough knowledge and understanding of the material. At the same time, students develop visual literacy skills through close study of the art works and the historical issues that underly them.

Worksheets are available here.