Newcastle Art Gallery holds one of the most significant painting collections in regional Australia. Through the works in the Gallery collection, it is possible to follow the history of painting in Australia. A cornerstone and excellent starting point of the painting collection are works by Joseph Lycett, who captured Newcastle as a penal colony - 'evidence' for his British gaolers and audience, of the civilising achievements in the Australian colonies. The sun-drenched landscapes of the Australian Impressionists, were considered highly influential. In the collection of these Impressionists are artists including Arthur Streeton, Hans Heysen, Elioth Grüner, Sydney Long and Lloyd Rees, who all created their own distinctive visions of the Australian landscape.
The Gallery has a strong holding of Sir William Dobell's work, considered one of the greatest portrait painters of the twentieth century. Dobell was born in Newcastle and spent his late career living on the banks of Lake Macquarie at Wangi Wangi. Grace Cossington Smith is a highlight of the Gallery's moderns collection and the Gallery's significant holdings of works by Fred Williams demonstrates his revitalisation of Australian landscape painting 1960s. Late in his career Arthur Boyd also made an original contribution to Australian landscape painting. However like his contemporary Sydney Nolan, Boyd and many Australian artists who came to prominence in the 1950s were overall committed to figurative painting. Also represented in the collection are Robert Dickerson and Charles Blackman, who painted human dramas in urban or suburban settings.
When it comes to expressive exuberance, there were few twentieth-century Australian painters to match the Newcastle-born artists Jon Molvig and John Olsen. Before moving to Sydney and later Brisbane, Molvig had worked at the Newcastle steel works and many of his works from the 1960s reflect his memories of an industrial landscape. Olsen has said that his formative years spent in Newcastle influenced his early work and helped his painting develop a light-hearted lyricism.
Keith Looby, Andrew Sibley and Jan Senbergs were of the same generation as the and were devoted to developing a figurative-based approach to painting. These artists in the collection, formulated a highly individual style that came to full maturity during the 1980s. Appropriation was the catch phrase of the 1980s in Australia and internationally. Imants Tillers was a cardinal exponent of appropriation, drawing on nineteenth and twentieth century paintings, comic books and Aboriginal art to create composite pictures made up from arrangements of small canvas boards. Brett Whiteley, also in the collection, demonstrated a continuing international influence.
During the 1990s and the beginning of the first decade of this century artists have continued to demonstrate the relevance of painting as a craft and vehicle for expression. In the Gallery collection artists such as Jon Cattapan and Tim Maguire demonstrate the evocative power of painting as abstract field and symbolic image. Philip Wolfhagen attests to the continuing validity of the painter’s role as acute observer and translator of the natural world. Probably the most important development in Australian painting over the past two decades has been the recognition of Aboriginal art as a significant force in contemporary visual culture. Artists in the collection such as Emily Kame Kngwarreye have gained not only national but also international acclaim. Thanks to the generosity of benefactors, the Gallery has acquired a number of works by Emily Kngwarreye and other important Aboriginal artists. The Gallery continues to collect both historical and contemporary painting.
This information is abbreviated from an essay by Ross Woodrow. View the full essay (pdf).