An Artist in the Wilderness: Piguenit and the Australian Landscape

William Charles Piguenit (1836-1914) might have had a grim life in Australia since he was born in Hobart Town to a convict-father who had been transported to the Tasmanian penal colony. Instead, young William was fortunate that his mother valued education. She set up a school for middle class girls where she taught the most important subjects – French, music and drawing.

William lived and was educated in Hobart, and spent 22 years working in the Dep­artment of Lands survey office as a draught­sman. There was one great advantage from working in the survey office – Piguenit was perfectly placed to go on expeditions to the rugged inland of the Tasmanian islands. Certainly he was formally mapping the landscape, but he was also examining the dramatic and romantic views with an artist’s eye. Piguenit’s field diary, now held in Sydney’s Mitchell Library, recorded his excitement at the rivers, skies, mountains, trees and waterfalls.

Admittedly the only formal connections he had to art in these 22 long years were a] lessons from a Scottish painter living in Hobart and b] doing lithographic illustrations as part of the survey work.

In 1872 Piguenit resigned from his career as a public servant in the Survey Office to devote himself to landscape painting – he began making sketching and photography trips to remote mountainous regions in inland Tasmania. For a largely self-taught artist, Pig­uenit started to exhibit his works in the annual Sydney and Melbourne academy shows. But giving up his day job was a brave thing to do, even for an unmarried man – he didn’t sell many of his paintings until 1887 when the government bought six of his works on the western highlands, now in the Hobart Art Gallery.

Piguenit’s impressive work, Mount Olympus, Lake St Clair, Tasmania, source of the Derwent, was one of many pieces in which he painted the state’s natural landscape. His romantic goal was to evoke the sublime majesty through a combin­at­ion of earth, water and sky writ large, and human activity writ small. We need to focus on Piguenit’s painting of Mount Olympus because it was the first work by an Australian-born artist to be acq­uir­ed, in 1875, by the Art Gallery of NSW.

Walk to the West was a book published in 1993 by The Royal Society of Tasman­ia to celebrate the walk to the West Coast of Tasmania under­taken by William Piguenit, James Backhouse Walker and others. They left Hobart in 1887. The book was based on the diary by Walker, with careful explanations of Tasmania’s conditions and environment. The text was interspersed with plates from Piguenit’s paintings, made along the trip. And a map provided information of the West Coast landscape in the 1880s.

In 1889 Piguenit joined an artists and photographers camp in the Grose Valley in the Blue Mountains. And the very next year he settled in Sydney. Continued patronage by the Gallery in Sydney enabled him to tour NSW and Tasmania, providing fresh inspir­ation for his grand, sweeping landscapes. The Flood in the Darling 1890 was one of the enormous works painted by Piguenit when heavy rains half flooded inland New South Wales that year.

Like any good Rom­an­t­ic artist, Piguenit loved comb­ining the dest­ructive yet sublime powers of nature. This artist could have depicted the loss of animals, human life and rural architecture, yet he chose the post-storm calm. He depicted the vast expanse of sky, land and water as a celebration of the natural world and its elements.

I’m perfectly aware that not every art historian thought that Piguenit had a very important place in Australian art of the later 19th century. Christopher Allen (The Australian, 22/6/2013) believed that while the paintings were apparently about vastness, distance and sublime grandeur, they were in fact completely flat. They had no depth, no space and no rigour. Allen thought this criticism was even more evident when comparing Piguenit to his Heidelberg School contemporaries in Melbourne.

But did the Heidelbergers make Piguenit look old fashioned and prov­incial, largely because of the older man’s lack of formal education in art composition? I think not. If we had to reject paintings because of a lack of rigour, half the religious, historical and portrait paintings of the last 2000 years would be gone. In any case, Piguenit starred in two important elements: his magic silvery light and his glassy bodies of water.

Despite being in his 60s, Piguenit continued his successful career into the new century. In 1898 and 1900 he visited Europe, exhibiting at London and Paris. Back home he won Australia’s most prestigious landscape award, the 1901 Wynne Prize, for Thunder Storm on the Darl­ing. Then he was commissioned by the National Gallery of New South Wales trustees to paint Mount Kosciusko 1903. This was a maj­estic depiction of the continent’s tallest mountain. It was a perfect symbol for the importance of Australia’s Federation, just two years earlier.

This fine artist died in 1914.

References and Image Sources

A Passion for Nature: William Charles Piguenit in the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery Collection, by Sue Backhouse et al, was published by the gallery in 2012. It shows the paintings and prints from the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery, the largest body of the artist’s work in any collect­ion. And it is well worth viewing the Catalogue Raisonne published by Tony Brown in December 2012, also for the Tasmanian Museum and Art Gallery of Hobart.

Images:

Mount King William from Lake George, Tasmania / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 358336 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292677)

Tasmanian landscape / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 324956 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2263618)

On the Craycroft [i.e. Cracroft], Tasmania / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia (Bib ID 358386 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292673)

Mt. Olympus, Lake St. Clair, Tasmania, 1878 / W.C. Piguenit Courtesy National Libary of Australia Bib ID 354211 http://nla.gov.au/nla.pic-an2292634

Hawkesbury River with Figures in Boat : On the Nepean via Wikimedia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/Category:William_Charles_Piguenit

The Flood in the Darling via Wikimedia http://commons.wikimedia.org/wiki/File:William_Piguenit_-_The_Flood_in_the_Darling_1890.jpg