Max Meldrum

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Duncan Max Meldrum
Max Meldrum00.jpg
Max Dupain c. 1937 Max Meldrum at 62
Born(1875-12-03)3 December 1875
Died6 June 1955(1955-06-06) (aged 79)
Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Known forPainting
MovementAustralian tonalism

Duncan Max Meldrum (3 December 1875 – 6 June 1955) was a Scottish-born Australian artist and art teacher, best known as the founder of Australian tonalism, a representational painting style that became popular in Melbourne during the interwar period. He also won fame for his portrait work, winning the prestigious Archibald Prize for portraiture in 1939 and 1940.

Early life[edit]

Max Meldrum was born in 1875 in Edinburgh, Scotland. His father, Edward Meldrum, was an analytical chemist and his mother, Christina Meldrum (née Macglashan), a schoolteacher. Products of the Scottish enlightenment, both parents fervently embraced scientific progress and empiricism. His mother was said to be particularly zealous in her beliefs in scientific progress, having “inverted Calvinism into an equally fierce agnosticism…[her] eyes would gleam with holy fire while she would orate upon her favorite scheme of filling the churches with scientific instruments and the cathedrals with mighty telescopes.”[1] Edward, who was friends with many of the city’s painters, introduced Max to art from an early age - he as his father spent many a day touring the city’s well-regarded art galleries when Max was young boy.[1]

In 1889, the family – Edward, Christina, Max, and Max’s two brothers – emigrated to Australia. His sister Elizabeth was born soon after their arrival in Melbourne. Once there, Max decided the academic life was not for him and quit formal schooling. Initially taking up a clerkship at a wool store, in 1892 he enrolled in the School of Design at the Melbourne National Gallery Art School.[2]

Learning the painting trade[edit]

Max entered in the National Gallery Art School in 1892, the very same year that Lindsay Bernard Hall, a staunchly conservative English-born artist and teacher, began his long tenure as the school’s director. Bernand Hall took a classical approach to teaching; before a student could even pick up a brush they had to first master charcoal drawing to a level that their work could be included in the school's annual exhibition. He believed painting should “proceed from breadth to detail, from general to particular truths, but always to see them in their order of importance; that is, to draw .” In addition to classes at the National Gallery, Meldrum also studied under George Coates. Coates' classes, held at the North Melbourne Trades Hall, became a gathering point for Melbourne’s bohemian scene and were attended by artists such as Lional and Percy Lindsey, as well as George Bell.[1]

To help with his tuition and expenses, Max also produced illustrations for Champion, a short-lived local paper launched by journalist, publisher, and socialist Henry Hyde Champion.[1]

The National Gallery Travelling Scholarship[edit]

Beginning in 1887, the National Gallery held a painting competition, the winner of which was awarded the prestigious National Gallery Travelling Scholarship. Students at the school were invited to submit a work based on a common subject which were judged by Melbourne’s art establishment. The winner was awarded the tidy sum £150 per annum for three years to continue honing their skills abroad.[1]

In 1899, Bernard Hall chose “Welcome News” as the subject of the season’s competition. Eight works were submitted, from artists including Hugh Ramsey, Norman MacGeorge, and Elsie Hake (Barlow). Meldrum’s submission emerged victorious, with Ramsey’s piece coming second, amid some controversy.[3] Upon winning, Meldrum is said to have slashed his entry to pieces, exclaiming he “would never again put an insincere brush to canvas.”

Max chose to complete his art education in Paris.[1]


Percy Storkey, VC, c1920, oil painting by Max Meldrum

He ran the Meldrum School of Painting there between 1916 and 1926. Among his students were Clarice Beckett, Colin Colahan,[4] Auguste Cornels, Percy Leason, John Farmer, Polly Hurry, Justus Jorgensen and Arnold Shore, and had considerable influence on the work of his friend Alexander Colquhoun, whose son Archibald was also a Meldrum student at that time. In 1916–17 he was elected president of the Victorian Artists' Society, but was dropped from the position amidst controversy the following year, inspiring his students to form a breakaway group, the Twenty Melbourne Painters Society, which remains active in the Melbourne arts scene to this day. Drawing on Meldrum's principles, the group released a statement describing their central tenet:

We desire nothing but sincerity and a humble study of nature, from which alone all art, whether decorative or realistic, draws any enduring life.

Meldrum influenced the young Albert Ernest Newbury.[5]

On modern art[edit]

Despite his leadership of a group, the Australian tonalists, which has lately come to be regarded as a precursor to minimalism,[6][7] Meldrum's attitude to modern art was reactionary; in 1937 he described it as 'savagery', 'crude and vile' and 'likely to debase the taste of our children',[8] condemning one example as 'an explosion in a sawmill'[9]

On women artists[edit]

Though women were amongst his followers, with one, Clarice Beckett, whom he held in high regard,[10] Meldrum in criticizing Nora Heysen's winning the 1938 Archibald Prize, proclaimed:

"Men and women are differently constituted. Women are more closely attached to the physical things of life, and to expect them to do some things equally as well as men is sheer lunacy [...] A great artist has to tread a lonely road. He becomes great only by exerting himself to the limit of his strength the whole time. I believe that such a life is unnatural and impossible for a woman."[11][12]

The following year, he won the Archibald prize himself, and again in 1940.

Personal life[edit]

While living in France, he married Jeanne Eugenie Nitsch, a singer with the Opéra-Comique. Meldrum and his wife returned to Australia in 1931.


Meldrum died on 6 June 1955 in Kew, Victoria, aged 79.



  1. ^ a b c d e f Perry, Peter W. (1996). Max Meldrum & associates : their art, lives and influences. John R. Perry, Max Meldrum. Castlemaine, Vic.: Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum. ISBN 0-9598066-7-9. OCLC 38415991.
  2. ^ McGrath, Joyce; Smith, Bernard, "Meldrum, Duncan Max (1875–1955)", Australian Dictionary of Biography, Canberra: National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, retrieved 23 February 2022
  3. ^ Grishin, Sasha (7 December 2019). "An artist well worth rediscovering". The Canberra Times. Retrieved 23 February 2022.
  4. ^ Meldrum, Max; Colahan, Colin, 1897–1987 (1919), Max Meldrum, his art and views, Alexander McCubbin, retrieved 4 November 2020{{citation}}: CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  5. ^ Serle, Percival (1949). "Newbury, Albert Ernest". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 13 October 2009.
  6. ^ Lock-Weir, Tracey (22 September 2009), "The sound of silence: twentieth-century Australian tonalism.(art feature)", Art and Australia, Art and Australia Pty. Ltd, 46 (3): 448(6), ISSN 0004-301X
  7. ^ Mclachlan, Scott (28 April 2017). "Presence and the Australian landscape". ART150: Celebrating 150 years of art. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  8. ^ "MODERN ART". Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 – 1954). 4 August 1937. p. 14. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  9. ^ "MODERN ART "BACK TO SAVAGERY"". Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 – 1954). 6 November 1937. p. 2. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  10. ^ "Beckett had done work of which any nation should be proud." Clarice Beckett; Rosalind Hollinrake; Ian Potter Museum of Art (1999). Clarice Beckett: politically incorrect. Ian Potter Museum of Art, University of Melbourne. ISBN 9780734015938.
  11. ^ "Can a Woman Be an Artist". The Mail (Adelaide). Vol. 27, no. 1, 391. South Australia. 21 January 1939. p. 1. Retrieved 10 August 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  12. ^ "MARRIAGE BEFORE CAREER". The Herald. No. 19, 245. Victoria, Australia. 21 January 1939. p. 8. Retrieved 10 August 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  13. ^ "Art exhibition at Hawthorn". The Age. 2 December 1943. p. 4.
Preceded by Archibald Prize
for The Hon. G. J. Bell, Speaker, House of Representatives

for Dr. J. Forbes McKenzie
Succeeded by

External links[edit]