Shearing the Rams, The Iconic Australian Artwork

Artwork(s) In Focus, Exhibition Announcements

April 3, 2021

One of the best-known and most-loved paintings in Australia, Shearing the Rams has been described as a masterpiece of Australian Impressionism and the great icon of Australian popular art history. Painted by Tom Roberts in 1890, it is a celebration of pastoral life and work, depicting sheep shearers plying their trade in a timber shearing shed. A response to the nationalistic sentiment that developed in Australia during the late nineteenth century, it reflects the emergence of a national identity defined through heroic rural activity and the economic importance of the wool industry.

When it was first exhibited in 1890, Shearing the Rams has been described in Table Talk as "a work that will live, and a work by which Mr. Roberts' name will always be remembered." Indeed, the painting would eventually be considered as the definitive image of an emerging national identity.

The work will soon be on view at the National Gallery of Victoria, alongside 270 other works by celebrated Australian artists. Titled She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism, the exhibition will present these works in new and surprising contexts by exploring the impact of personal relationships, international influences, and the importance of place on the trajectory of the movement.

One of at least seventy sketches Robert made in preparation for Shearing the Rams, 1888. Gouache and pencil on brown paper on cardboard, 22.0 × 29.9 cm. Collection of the National Gallery of Victoria. Image via Wikimedia Commons

The History Behind Shearing the Rams

Born in England in 1856, Tom Roberts migrated to Australia with his family in 1869, settling in Collingwood, a working-class suburb of Melbourne. After studies in Europe, he brought the principles of impressionism and plein air painting back with him to Australia, having a profound impact on Australian art. With like-minded artists, he founded the Heidelberg school – the first distinctively Australian school of painting, known for an informal, evocative, and naturalistic style that evoked the colors and flora of the Australian landscape.

Roberts himself was a vocal advocate for national subject matter and produced many iconic artworks of rural labor and the light and atmosphere of the bush. For him, agricultural and pastoral subjects, such as bushranging, droving, and shearing, symbolized the embryonic nation. The wool industry produced the wealth of Australia, with shearers being considered folk heroes of sorts. As Roberts explained, he felt "the delight and fascination of the great pastoral life and work."

So lying on wool-bales ... it seemed that I had there the best expression of my subject, a subject noble and worthy enough if I could express the meaning and spirit—of strong masculine labour, the patience of the animals whose year's growth is being stripped from them for man's use and the great human interest in the whole scene.

After he decided on shearing as the subject for a painting, Roberts set up his easel in the empty woolshed at Brocklesby Station, owned by the Anderson family, his distant relations.

Left and Right: Details from Tom Roberts' 1890 painting Shearing the Rams

The Composition

During the spring of 1888, Tom Roberts made around 70 or 80 preliminary sketches of "the light, the atmosphere, the sheep, the men and the work" before returning to the station for the next two following shearing seasons with his canvas. Art historians first believed that the majority of the Shearing the Rams painting was completed in the studio based on these sketches. It was in 2006 when the NGV conducted a scientific examination of paint left on a piece of timber salvaged from the now-destroyed shed, that Roberts used to clean his brushes, confirming that it matched the paint used in the painting.

Roberts used local people as his models, "the most characteristic and picturesque of the shearers and rouseabouts." He paid young Susan Bourne and her sister sixpence apiece to kick up the dust so he could recapture the atmosphere of shearing time. Susan was also used as the model for the tar boy in the center of the canvas, which is the only figure making eye contact with the viewer.

In Shearing the Rams, Roberts deliberately chose to depict hand shearing instead of the machine one, that started to enter Australian shearing sheds in the late 1880s, as he believed that it "gave more meaning to the painting."In the composition and individual figures, there are also many references to classical and Renaissance art – the pose of the boy on the left, for example, was borrowed from the figure of Esau in Ghiberti’s Florence Baptistry doors.

Shearing the Rams is characterized by vivid realism and the snapshot, photographic composition. It features convincing details, such as the sunlit gold of the bottles of oil for the whetstones, a bell hanging above the entrance used to sound the start and end of work, a pair of shears propped against a wall, and a tobacco pipe stuck in a man’s trousers.

The painting captures a rhythm of hard, physical, masculine effort, but also a sense of harmony, teamwork, and mateship. The whole scene is bathed in diffused sunlight coming through a series of openings on the right. When it was first shown, it has been described in The Argus as "...the best illustration which has yet been given of one of the most characteristic scenes of Australian life."

Frederick McCubbin - The pioneer, 1904. Oil on canvas 225 x 295.7 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1906

She-Oak and Sunlight at the NGV

Drawing from major public and private collections around Australia including the NGV Collection, the exhibition She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism will bring together widely recognizable and celebrated works by artists such as Frederick McCubbin, Jane Sutherland, Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder, Clara Southern, John Russell and E. Phillips Fox, as well as lesser-known works by Iso Rae, May Vale, Jane Price and Ina Gregory.

As Tony Ellwood AM, Director, NGV, explained, the exhibition will draw "on the rich legacy established by the NGV’s previous Australian Impressionism exhibitions."

The exhibition will address the truly revolutionary nature of the movement, as well as the social and cultural contexts that defined this period of rapid change and transformation in Australian art history. 

The exhibition will cover the many forms of impressionism in Australia, including painting the landscape outdoors en plein air and the rich legacy of the artist camps at Heidelberg. The exhibition will also present more than 50 works from the landmark 1889 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition, which consisted of impressions of bush and city life rapidly painted on cigar box lids, but also juxtapose Australian artists to their European counterparts such as Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley, James Abbott McNeill Whistler and others drawn from the NGV Collection.

Alongside Roberts' Shearing the Rams, highlights of the show include Clara Southern’s An old bee farm, Warrandyte (c.1900), Arthur Streeton’s The Purple noon’s transparent might (1896), and Frederick McCubbin’s The pioneer (1904), an x-ray analysis of which has revealed was painted over the top of an earlier 1892 work, entitled Found. Until this recent discovery by NGV Conservation, it was thought to have been lost.

The exhibition She-Oak and Sunlight: Australian Impressionism will be on view at the Ian Potter Centre: NGV Australia in Melbourne from April 2nd until August 22nd, 2021.

Tom Roberts - Shearing the Rams

Featured image: Tom Roberts - Shearing the rams, 1890. Oil on canvas on composition board, 122.4 x 183.3 cm. National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne Felton Bequest, 1932. All images courtesy the National Gallery of Australia.