Max Meldrum (1875 -1955) was a Scottish-born Australian artist, teacher, art theorist and the founder of Australian tonalism.

Meldrum arrived in Australia at the age of 14 and studied under Frederick McCubbin and Bernard Hall at the National Gallery of Victoria. He was awarded a travelling scholarship in 1899 and went to France where he studied the Old Masters. In 1911 he returned to Australia and pursued a minimal approach to painting where tonal variations became the most important components of an image. In 1916 Meldrum established his own art school in Melbourne, where he taught students about his theory of perception, which he named ‘The Scientific Order of Impressions’.

Meldrum’s placed the utmost importance on the exact recording of tonal (not colour) relationships, arguing that tone alone would produce the sensation of planes, hold the subject matter within the picture plane, and create a unified sensation of light, atmosphere, space and distance.

Meldrum played with strong contrasts of shadow and light, pairing back his painting process to a rapid application of broken areas of restricted tone. Simplification of form and recessive space became key features to his work. He taught his students not so much how to paint but rather how to see things objectively and to observe the subtlety of the Australian landscape.

Tonalism is a painting system without any preliminary drawing of a subject where artists record tonal impressions quickly onto a canvas with oil paints. This is done in the order that the impressions met the eye, often reducing a scene to large areas of light and dark. This is based on Max Meldrum’s theory that the mind can be trained to receive visual impressions in varying orders of importance, with the most significant being the majority tonal value. This is the first value that should be directly painted onto the canvas. The painting is then built up through recording these initial impressions.

The aim of tonalism is to create an illusion of nature, one that responds to the environment in an immediate way. It is an objective study of nature, with artists using a radically reduced colour palette and feathering brushwork. The method requires artists to use only five tones which are applied with a round brush and a generous amount of paint to ensure the transition between tones is seamless.

The systematic nature of Australian school of tonalism means that an identifiable soft impressionist style was created by Meldrum and his followers. At times this made it difficult to distinguish the work of different artists. Beckett’s work stands apart from other Meldrum Group artists (Meldrumites), who applied Meldrum’s Tonalism. Beckett’s work captured extraordinary spatial recession and smooth, velvet painted surfaces and were also much brighter in colour. She was the finest colourist of the Meldrum Group and the first to develop signature motifs, such as the telepgraph pole, roof tops and the motor car. 

Think and Discuss

Look closely at the works of art below depicting gum trees.

  • Discuss the use of colour and composition in each work of art.
  • How does each artist's style differ?
  • Which painting engages you the most and why?
  • Would you agree that all these paintings encapsulate a typical Australian scene?
  • Which work of art is most accurate it capturing the atmospheric nature of the Australian landscape?

Did you know?

When Max Meldrum painted the Australian landscape a newspaper critic said that his gum trees look like “horses hoofs resting on the ground”. Max Meldrum responded by “congratulating the critic on finding in his painting what he had failed to see in nature!”. Take a look at Eltham bush by Max Meldrum – what do you think? Compare Meldrum’s depiction of gum trees to how gum trees appear in nature.

Upon returning to Australia in 1912 after spending 12 years in France, Meldrum stated “we must not forget that our art, our tradition, comes from Europe and with a country as curiously distinct as Australia in subject matter we are almost forced to start off from scratch”. What do you think Meldrum meant by this? Begin by investigating depictions of the Australian landscape painting prior to 1912. How did Meldrum and his followers paint the Australian landscape?

Research works of art by European and Australian Impressionists. What is the difference between Impressionism and Tonalism? Compare these Impressionist works of art to paintings by Clarice Beckett and Max Meldrum. What qualities are similar and what is different?

Select 10 works of art that chart the development of landscape painting in Australia. What changes between one era to the next? Include works of art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in your selection. Tip: You could make this a whole class activity and extend the number of works to 30.

In an article in the Triad in 1925, Meldrum discussed his observation of a silver gum – on the trunk alone he noted seven different tones. Take some photographs of the native trees in your local area. Conduct a colour mixing experiment to see how many different tones you can make, and match, to your photographs.

Select 10 works of art that chart the development of landscape painting in Australia. What changes between one era to the next? Include works of art by Aboriginal and Torres Strait Islander artists in your selection. Tip: You could make this a whole class activity and extend the number of works to 30.

The Gallery’s Learning programs are supported by the Department for Education.

Art Gallery of South Australia staff Tracey Lock, Kylie Neagle and Dr. Lisa Slade contributed to the development of this resource.