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Arthur Streeton’s Ariadne is one of a small but important group of allegorical paintings completed in the mid 1890s. At much the same time as he was working on several of his most celebrated Impressionist landscapes, Streeton also painted what may be regarded as symbolist subjects such as The spirit of the drought c 1896 and Sydney Harbour: a souvenir c 1897 (both in the national collection). Australian Symbolism was a rather more allegorical variation of the international movement, and artists like Streeton drew inspiration from sources as varied as classical mythology and the imagery of dreams and poetry.
In Greek mythology, Ariadne was the daughter of King Minos. She was forsaken by her lover Theseus and left abandoned on the island of Naxos. In Streeton’s portrayal, she stands on a bleached sandy Australian shore, her head in her hands, as Theseus’s ship sails toward the horizon. The coastal landscape is bathed in clear white sunshine, with a band of brilliant blue dividing the composition. Ariadne’s costume of delicately modelled sheer white fabric is crisscrossed around the front and back of her upper body, perhaps referencing the Greek chiton. The calligraphic sway of the trees that frame the figure, their shadows reaching across the sand, suggest a landscape in sympathy with this classical narrative of forsaken love.
For Streeton, Ariadne was a compelling figure, and he returned to the subject while living in London. Describing the progress of a later painting to his friend Frederick Delmer in 1897, he wrote, ‘Have just commenced a little decorative picture of Ariadne and have been working from models for some days for it—and she shall have a lovely background of gum trees and quiet harbour water’.
Streeton’s allegorical subjects and nymph-like figures have been described as a romantic and nostalgic means of associating the Australian landscape with the classical Mediterranean world, with its images of gods and heros, nymphs and dryads. This idea of seeing Australia as a kind of new Mediterranean was evident in aspects of the art of the writing of the 1890s. There was a desire to create a more evocative, poetic mood, rather than realistic description, narrative content or moral message.
Ariadne was selected for the exhibition Australia’s Impressionists at the National Gallery, London, from 7 December 2016 to 26 March 2017, joining other important works on loan from the NGA.