Collection Highlight: Elioth Gruner

Collection Highlight: Elioth Gruner

Elioth Gruner, Michelago Valley c.1922, oil on canvas. 91 x 136 cm. National Art School Collection, Gift of the Gruner estate, c.1939.

When he died in 1939 at the age of 57, Elioth Gruner (b. 1882, Gisborne, NZ) left two large paintings of the Michelago Valley unfinished.  Although the Gruner Estate donated them soon afterwards to the National Art School as teaching aids unfortunately it seems that neither painting was seen by students until the 1980s, when they were found in a leaky shed behind the Cell Block Theatre.  Theo Francis (then co-head of Fine Art) arranged to have the two paintings repaired and they formally entered the Archives of NAS/TAFE Collection and were put on display in Building 22.

Elioth Gruner often visited Michelago, which is situated south of Canberra in the Monaro region of New South Wales, to stay with Australian soldier, politician and diplomat Sir Granville Ryrie.  Gruner spent nearly a month there in 1922 painting NAS’s Michelago Valley and possibly three or four other versions.  The re-emergence of one of these versions from a private collection, A Land of Wide Horizons, Michelago, unseen for nearly half a century, sparked enormous interest and it featured in a major Sydney auction in 2020, achieving the highest recorded price to date for the artist.  Although smaller, its similarity to the painting in the NAS collection is striking.

Elioth Gruner, Unfinished landscape, c.1922. Oil on canvas, 101 x 120 cm. National Art School Collection, Gift of the Gruner estate, c.1939.

Elioth Gruner, A Land of Wide Horizons, Michelago, 1922. Oil on canvas. 71.2 x 102 cm.

Many poets, artists and filmmakers have appreciated the Michelago Valley.  Along with his mentor George Lambert, Elioth Gruner was captivated by the subtle play of light across the valley.

The artist Norman Lindsay called Gruner ‘the greatest painter of pure light the world has ever seen … I am not even excepting Turner in this respect … The analysis of light by colour is Gruner’s great contribution to the world’s art.  When the world knows it, painters from all over the world will come here to study our Gruners.’

Gruner’s approach to painting is fascinating to see, and both works in the NAS collection display immaculately finished skies and very raw unfinished foregrounds. Despite this, the works are framed as if completed and the second painting contains one central soft cloud, hovering over the distant hills, creating a feeling of calm and tranquillity.

Elioth Gruner was one of Australia’s most prominent landscape painters, winning the Wynne Prize at the Art Gallery of New South Wales seven times between 1916 and 1937.  His painting Spring Frost won the Wynne in 1919 and is still regarded as a highlight of the AGNSW collection.

Gruner had strong connections to the National Art School – he was friends with sculptor and teacher Rayner Hoff and was a regular examiner of student work at the National Art School Diploma exhibitions.

Michelago Valley is currently with a conservator and will shortly be back at the National Art School before heading to an exhibition at Parliament House, Sydney.

Although the bulk of the NAS collection is work produced by students on site, a number of artworks in the collection are landscapes by both students and teachers.  Examples below include another work from the 1920s: Godfrey Miller’s subtle early watercolour Landscape with distant farm.  Others selected are landscape scenes from the NAS collection from each of the following four decades, finishing with Douglas Dundas’s 1960s Landscape.

If you would like to visit the NAS art collection, please contact either Deborah Beck, Archivist and Collections Manager (02 9339 8674), or Sonia Legge, Curator Collections (02 9339 8796).

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