Conrad Martens (1801-1878)

Conrad Martens was Australia’s first professional artist. At the age of sixteen he began his art study in London, ending a banking tradition in his family that stretched back to the fifteenth century.

Martens left England onboard the Hyacinth headed towards India, but changed ships to work as an artist on the HMS Beagle. He met and befriended Captain FitzRoy and the naturalist, Charles Darwin. Their knowledge of geology, weather patterns, topography and science had a great impact on Martens’ practice, which relinquished a romantic sensibility for scientific detail and observation.

Arriving in Sydney in 1835, Martens settled at Cumberland Street, The Rocks. Although he was a trained watercolourist, the pressure to make a living led him to oil painting for the first time in 1838.

However, Martens received many commissions (both large and small) and in 1837 some of his watercolours were exhibited at the Royal Society in London. His images of Sydney and surrounding New South Wales between 1835 and the early 1940s show a concern with light, space and clarity of tone. Topographically accurate, his paintings retained a picturesque quality.

His practice and output changed during the drought in the 1840-1850s as commissions were becoming increasingly difficult to obtain. Instead, Martens started creating lithographs which allowed him to sell copies of the same work many times over. The work held in the Benalla Art Gallery Collection, ‘View of Sydney from the North Shore’, was especially popular.

He exhibited widely including at the Victorian Fine Arts Society in Melbourne in 1853 and at the Paris Universal Exhibition in 1855. As the economy improved in Australia, so too did his success in obtaining commissions from institutions that would later become the National Gallery of Victoria and Art Gallery of New South Wales. Conrad Martens is represented in the collections of the National Gallery of Australia and most state and regional galleries.

Main image: Conrad Martens, View of Sydney from the North Shore, NSW. 1855

Hand coloured lithograph

27.0 x 50.0 cm

Benalla Art Gallery Collection. Bennett Bequest, 1999


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