Tom Roberts / Australia 1856–1931 / Amehnam (Wolya clan, Port Darwin) 1892 / Oil on canvas / 44.5 x 34.5cm / Gift of the Bruce & Joy Reid Foundation through the Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art Foundation 2019 / Collection: Queensland Art Gallery | Gallery of Modern Art

Tom Roberts
Amehnam (Wolya clan, Port Darwin) 1892

Not Currently on Display

In 1892, Tom Roberts set sail from Sydney, headed for far north Queensland. Roberts painted several portrait studies of Indigenous people during this trip, including Amehnam 1892, a man from the Wolya people of Port Darwin whom he met in Cooktown.

The Indigenous portraits Roberts painted show a sensitivity uncommon for the time. Amehnam is particularly relevant to another work in the collection (Indigenous gathering, Far North Queensland) 1892, which is one of the few instances where Roberts depicted Indigenous people in the setting where he encountered them.

Tom Roberts was born in England in 1856. Following the death of his father, the family travelled to Melbourne in 1869 to live with relatives. Roberts worked as a photographer’s assistant, studying drawing and painting in the evenings. Returning to London in 1881, he studied at the Royal Academy of Arts.

In 1883, he toured Spain with Australian artist John Peter Russell. Here, he met artists Laureano Barrau and Ramon Casas, who introduced him to Impressionism and painting en plein air. Roberts also absorbed the progressive influences of French painter Jules Bastien-Lepage and American painter James Abbott McNeill Whistler. His experiences abroad, including his familiarisation with the French Barbizon School and Impressionism, greatly influenced his art.

Roberts pioneered plein-air painting in Australia when he returned in 1885. With Frederick McCubbin and Louis Abrahams, he founded the first of the artists’ camps at Box Hill, Victoria. These artists and others would become known as the Heidelberg School, the first truly Australian art movement.

In 1889, with Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton, Roberts organised the landmark ‘9 by 5 Impression Exhibition’, held at Buxton’s Rooms in Swanston Street, Melbourne. This popular exhibition was the first major exhibition of impressionist paintings in Australia.

Discussion Questions

1. How is Roberts’s sensitivity to Indigenous people reflected in this painting?

2. Compare this portrait painted in 1892 with other portraits of Indigenous Australians in the QAGOMA collection. Talk about the perspectives and changes that are evident.

Classroom Activities

Research some of the key dates or events in the life of Indigenous people in Darwin in the mid 1800s to mid 1900s. Can you pinpoint any activities that link to Tom Roberts’s observations?