H. J. Johnstone
Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia

Gallery 3

About this work of art

Audio description of the work of art

Evening shadows, backwater of the Murray, South Australia by English-born artist Henry James Johnstone is a landscape format oil painting on canvas. Painted in 1880 in London, England, it is 120.6 cm high and 184.1 cm wide.

The painting depicts the backwater, smaller still ponds and streams near the Murray River. It is evening, three Aboriginal people gather to camp under eucalyptus trees beside the water in the glowing light of the setting sun.

Painted in a realist style, the scene is created with small paint strokes, resulting in a natural, almost photographic appearance to the painting.

An irregularly shaped pond of still water is located in the lower third of the painting. The pond is edged with reeds, and the small circular green leaves and white flowers of water lilies float on the surface of the water.

Four tall thick trunked eucalyptus trees, hundreds of years old, grow in the grassy bank beside the pond, two on the left side, the other two on the right.

Bulbous and thicker at the base, their trunks are vertical cylindrical forms, segmenting into multiple branches that twist upwards and curve outwards at irregular angles, the trees olive leaved branches criss-crossing each other at the top of the painting.

The artist has used muddy brown and grey layered strokes of paint to create the trunks and branches. Rough bark has peeled off to reveal smoother areas underneath. Many branches are missing leaving the trees with jagged stumps, and darker holes and hollows. The ground below is littered with branches, bark and leaves.

A long horizontal branch has fallen, forming a natural bridge from one side of the pond to the other. An Aboriginal woman, small in comparison with the towering trees around her, is about to walk from the left side across to the right. Barefoot, she wears a long grey skirt, a red patterned blanket around her waist and over her right arm she carries a small woven basket. A length of dark fabric is wrapped around her torso and over her left shoulder. She grasps the fabric at her chest for a baby is held in the fabric at her back.

On the right side of the painting, beside the pond is the campsite, an Aboriginal woman and man in front of a shelter. The kneeling woman leans over tending to a small campfire, her face lit by the flames. Her torso is bare, her waist and legs wrapped in a large red blanket. The man sits cross-legged on the other side of the fire. Bearded, he has a white blanket wrapped around him.

Behind the woman and fire is an A-framed shelter, wider at the base and peaked at the top. Constructed from straight branches, the front side towards the fire is open. The back and the triangular ends of the structure are lined with layered and flattened pieces of bark. The structure is large enough to house the three adults and the baby.

Behind the four large trees and the campsite, hundreds of eucalyptus trees crowd the riverbank around a larger pond of water. The sky, in the upper half of the painting, is pale pink, almost white. The light of the descending evening sun glows between the trees.

The water acts like a mirror reflecting the trees, the sky and the walking woman upside-down in the ponds.

The painting is signed and dated in the lower left corner, ‘H.J.Johnson 1880’.