Johann Joseph Eugen von Guerard (most commonly known as Eugene) departed Gravesend in August 1852 aboard the Windermere, one of 90 ships which left England for the Australian colonies that year. A passionate traveller, the Viennese-born von Guérard had trained as an artist in Germany and Italy before journeying to the Victorian diggings.
Von Guérard mined at Ballarat for several months before art became his chief means of financial support. Immersed in the rigours of life on the diggings, von Guérard found time to record the details of daily existence in both his sketchbook and his journal. These visual and written interpretations of life on the diggings, while rich sources in themselves, would also be expanded into the grand romantic landscapes for which the artist is best remembered.
Though he described Ballarat as consisting of ‘some tents and some buildings constructed of wood’ soon after his arrival in 1853, von Guérard was set apart from many of his continental predecessors in that he was quick to identify with Australia’s physical and cultural landscapes. His works often celebrate an inherent beauty in soft sombre colours, marked by a meticulous eye for detail.
Von Guérard made Victoria his home for thirty years, working as Curator at the National Gallery of Victoria and Master of the Art School from 1870 to 1881. In 1881, aged seventy, he retired from the Gallery and returned to Dusseldorf. Two years later, James Oddie, the founder and president of the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery, commissioned von Guérard to paint a large canvas of Ballarat as he has seen it in the 1850s. Explaining the process of painting Old Ballarat as it was in the Summer of 1853-4 from the other side of the world, the artist expressed his reliance on his goldfields sketchbooks ‘to give a true representation of how Ballarat looked at the time.’ The sketch Ballarat 18 February, 1854, which he had completed thirty years earlier, became a principal source for his painting. He descibed it as ‘a small, highly finished drawing, only one foot in length…I was very glad that I had the long clear summer days before me when I began the picture.’
Old Ballarat as it was in the Summer of 1853-4 was gifted to the Ballarat Fine Art Gallery by James Oddie on Eureka Day 1885.