J.J. Hilder and the Languages of Art

By Heckenberg, Kerry | Queensland Review, February 2008 | Go to article overview

J.J. Hilder and the Languages of Art


Heckenberg, Kerry, Queensland Review


Writing in a book published in 1918 in honour of Jesse Jewhurst Hilder (1881-1916), shortly after the artist's tragic early death from tuberculosis, Bertram Stevens declared:

   Australia may well be proud of Jesse Hilder, for he is entirely her
   own by birth and training. His art was intuitive; what instruction
   he received, and the inspiration he got from other men's work,
   helped him but little towards self-development. His water-colours
   show the strong individual note of the true romantic artist; they
   are not like anything done previously in Australia or elsewhere.
   (1)

Born and educated in colonial Queensland and forced by family circumstances to work in a bank from the age of seventeen, Hilder had few opportunities for a traditional artistic training. These facts underlie Stevens' pronouncement and have led others to posit alternative explanations for the artist's style. For example, D.H. Souter argued in 1909 that: 'J.J. drew his inspiration from Mother Nature direct, and studied sea and sky with a wonder tempered by such art publications as happened to drift his way.' In a subsequent commemorative volume published in 1966, on the fiftieth anniversary of Hilder's death, one of his sons, Brett Hilder, presents an elaborate genealogy of Hilders with artistic talent in order to justify his claim of a genetic basis for his father's art. Another commentator at this time, Edgar A. Ferguson, writing in the Brisbane Courier-Mail under the headline 'Great Queensland Painter Honoured', suggests that the environment must have played a role. In other words, in his efforts to reinstate the artist's Queensland origins into the picture, he offers a more contemporary variation of the direct inspiration of Mother Nature trope. (2)

It must be agreed that Hilder developed early a distinctive personal style, that (in the striking phrase employed by Souter) 'whatever he paints is as unmistakably his as the tailless kitten is the offspring of the Manx cat'. (3) However, this style has many affinities with contemporary artistic developments. No artist is self-generated: intrinsic talent, intuition and the environment are all inadequate explanations (although each may play a role). Instead, this article will argue that Hilder's art demonstrates how closely entwined Australia, including Queensland, was in the 'networks of modernity' that existed in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Of particular importance was aestheticism, the legacy of James McNeill Whistler (1834-1903). (4) This involved an interest in the flattened space, asymmetrical compositions and decorative forms of Japanese art, in subtle colour harmonies, and in sketch-like generalisation rather than detail, as seen in Whistler's views of the Thames or the Venetian lagoon obscured in fog and mist. Also important was a new vocabulary derived from music, promulgated by Whistler in the titles of his artworks (he painted nocturnes and harmonies, not subjects derived from literature or history), and in his writings, most notably his 'Ten O'Clock Lecture' (1885, published 1888). (5) Indeed, both the formal and material characteristics of Hilder's water-colours and the language his critics used to evaluate and laud them show this debt.

In order to substantiate this argument, I will present a brief outline of Hilder's early artistic experiences as recounted in various biographical accounts, supplementing this with a discussion of the wider intellectual and aesthetic milieu that contributed to his development. Vehicles such as newspapers, magazines, theatrical performances and international exhibitions were vital sources of artistic and aesthetic ideas, even in provincial Queensland. I will then examine Hilder's subsequent artistic development in relation to the networks of influence that circulated among artists and their students, available to Hilder only after 1906 when he began lessons at night in the studio of Julian Ashton in Sydney. …

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