The present work is one of Streeton's numerous harvest field subjects. The very first painting he exhibited, at the summer exhibition of the Art Association of Australia in 1887, was a Mentone landscape with hay stooks: Australian December (1887, private collection). He produced harvest scenes during his early years in England around the turn of the 20th century - works such as Sussex Harvest (1899, Art Gallery of New South Wales) and Kent Harvest (1904, National Gallery of Australia) – and he returned to the subject again in the later 1920s with several Western District oat field paintings. Mary Eagle has noted that these harvest pictures, 'produced intermittently through a long career, almost detach themselves as a group within the artist's oeuvre. They are mostly small in size, vividly observed and brushed with cheerful confidence.'1
In the latter part of his career the artist commonly produced multiple versions of landscapes, and this can make precise identification problematic. Works bearing the title The Oatfield featured in both his 1927 and 1928 Macquarie Galleries exhibitions, while an Oat harvest was included in his show at the Fine Art Society's Gallery, Melbourne, in 1927. All three paintings are catalogued at the same dimensions and price. The present work is here identified as the Fine Art Society exhibition's Oat harvest; the presence of two figures at work building and stacking sheaves suggests the more active title, while the spreading, umbrageous mid-ground eucalyptus fits the Age reviewer's reference to 'more sylvan inland subjects, such as Oat harvest... [in which] the tree forms are handled with great skill and sense of beauty.'2
Indeed, this is a work of considerable subtlety, in its combination of traditional British harvest iconography with the strong vernacular and personal signifiers of the river red gums and the distant blue Grampians mountains. Exhibited with one of the three versions of Land of the Golden Fleece (1926-27, National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Victoria and the Australian Club, Sydney), the work was probably begun on the same November-December 1926 visit to the Western District which produced that iconic landscape.
Here, however, the tone is georgic, not pastoral. At the very front of the composition, directing the eye towards the partially obscured labourers directly above it, stands that powerful symbol of human presence in the Australian landscape, a billycan. Like the billy in The settlers' camp (1888, collection Dr Peter Farrell, AM), or the milking pail in Noon, Olinda (circa 1935-1938, private collection), Oat harvest's little minimal still life of a billycan and kerchief anchors both the picture's perspective and its narrative. It is a Cézannesque cylinder against the cones of the oat hay and the sphere of the gum tree, and provides a crisply painted foil to the broad brushwork of the landscape.
Singled out for notice in the Argus as having 'many attractive qualities'3, this painting was originally purchased by Dr (later Sir) Harry Moxham, a distinguished Sydney dentist (one-time President of the Federal Dental Association) and a notable collector of Australian paintings and Oriental ivories.
We are most grateful to Oliver Streeton for his assistance in cataloguing this work.
1. Mary Eagle, The oil paintings of Arthur Streeton in the National Gallery of Australia, Canberra: National Gallery of Australia, 1994, p. 146
2. 'Arthur Streeton Exhibition', Age, 15 March 1927, p. 14
3. 'Mr Streeton's paintings', Argus, 15 March 1927, p. 16
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