Until the 3rd of October – The National Gallery of Australia
Robert Dowling was Australia’s first major colonial-trained professional artist. Within Australian art historical terms, this was a milestone of great significance. It may seem surprising, then, that the National Gallery of Australia travelling exhibition Robert Dowling: Tasmanian son of Empire is the first retrospective of the artist’s comprehensive body of work. This exhibition shows his portraits, including his portraits of pastoralists and their properties, portraits and compositions of Indigenous people, biblical subjects, social history subjects and his Oriental subjects. The exhibition opens on 6 March at the Queen Victoria Museum & Art Gallery in Launceston, Tasmania, where Dowling arrived in Australia in 1834 at the age of seven.

Dowling gave up his saddlery trade to launch himself as a professional portrait painter in Launceston in 1850. It was still pre-gold rush Australia, and our first locally formed professional painter emerged at the age of 23. Dowling made claims of being self-taught but, despite the fact that the colonies had no academies of art for formal training or public art collections to study, the young artist had opportunities to learn from other colonial artists, including Frederick Strange and Thomas Bock, and from the work of Henry Mundy.

In Tasmania, a balanced colonial microcosm of late-Georgian English culture supported sophisticated architecture, furniture makers, silversmiths, frame makers and, importantly for Dowling, a surprising number of portrait painters—as well as still-life, marine and landscape painters. Indeed, Tasmanian art from the 1830s to the early 1850s was richer and more diverse than that of any other Australian colony.
Dowling’s interesting early portrait oils and miniatures executed in Tasmania appear superficially sophisticated, yet their often oversized heads and undersized hands betray the fact that he was deprived of the benefits of academic training and life drawing. Even so, his understanding of modelling and use of colour at this early stage of his professional career and his grasp on the character of his subjects was already more advanced than that of many of his colonial forebears and contemporaries.

Gallery Hours