Sydney Long [1871-1955] is Australia's foremost Art Nouveau style painter and a major Symbolist. In works such as The Spirit of the plains 1897, Pan 1898 and Fantasy c 1914, as well as in his many versions of Flamingoes, he created magical images.
Long's Art Nouveau paintings are like reveries, an escape from the everyday; they create a feeling of spiritual elevation, of another reality. And yet, seeking imagery which conveyed the 'lonely and primitive feelings of this country', he captured something of the soul and tone of the Australian bush.
Born on 20 August 1871 at Ifield, Goulburn, New South Wales, Sydney Long began formal art classes at the New South Wales Art Society in 1890. In 1894 his Heidelberg School-influenced painting By Tranquil Waters caused a small scandal, but was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales. The sale brought him to the attention of Julian Ashton, a Trustee of the Gallery and founder of the influential Julian Ashton Art School (at that time called the Sydney Art School), and in 1907 he became Ashton's second in command in the school.
In 1898 he had a short engagement with Thea Proctor. In 1910 he moved to London, where he learned etching and became an associate of the Royal Society of Painters, Etchers and Engravers. He returned to Australia in 1921 and helped found the Australian Painters, Etchers and Engravers Society, lived in England for the period 1922-1925, then returned once more to Australia, becoming President of the Society. He won the Wynne Prize twice; in 1938 for The Approaching Storm, and in 1940 for The Lake, Narrabeen. He remained a director of the Society for many years, as well as remaining an active art teacher.
In 1952 he returned once again to England.
While influenced by the Heidelberg School, Long's first successful painting, By Tranquil Waters, 1894, shows a markedly different engagement with the Australian scene: where Heidelberg artists such as Arthur Streeton and Frederick McCubbin showed the Bush as a place of work and struggle (and occasional sentimentality), Long's painting of young naked bathers is hedonistic and charged with low-key eroticism - the eroticism, rather than the nudity per se, was the cause of the scandal.
After 1895 Long moved even further from the Heidelberg School's approach to the Australian landscape (a fusion of Victorian genre painting and a Barbizon-like plein air informal realism), seeking instead to achieve "soulful and graceful evocations of the spirit of the land, as did the Greeks and their beautiful myths". In practice this resulted in a new school of Australian Paganism, reflected in the literature of the period as much as in the art, and counting among its practitioners Lionel Lindsay and his brother Norman Lindsay.
Long's greatest triumph in this style was The Spirit of the Plains, 1897, using the flowing patterns and pastel colours of Art Nouveau to create a poetic vision of the Australian bush as the incongruous setting for a naked Grecian wood-nymph leading a procession of dancing brolgas. Another example of this style is his work Pan 1898, which was purchased by the Art Gallery of New South Wales.
The Spirit of the plains, 1897