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]

Meldrum was born in Edinburgh, Scotland, son of Edward David Meldrum, chemist, and his wife Christine, née Macglashan. The family emigrated to Australia in 1889. Meldrum studied at the National Gallery School in Melbourne. In 1899, he won the Victorian Travelling Scholarship, under which he chose to complete his art education in Paris.[1] Soon after, he became dissatisfied with the academic conventions of the Paris schools and left them to study on his own.[2]

He returned to Melbourne to his family in 1912, where he lived with his parents in East Melbourne, then at St Kilda. In 1915 he took a studio at 527 Collins Street, for a time sharing it with Harley Griffiths senior.


He ran the Meldrum School of Painting there between 1916 and 1926. Among his students were Clarice Beckett, Colin Colahan,[3] 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.[4]

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,[5][6] 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',[7] condemning one example as 'an explosion in a sawmill'[8]

On women artists[edit]

Though women were amongst his followers, with one, Clarice Beckett, whom he held in high regard,[9] 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 women." [10][11]

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. ^ Meldrum, Max. "The Science of Appearances", 1950.
  2. ^ Colahan, Colin. "Max Meldrum:His Art and Views", 1925.
  3. ^ Meldrum, Max; Colahan, Colin, 1897-1987 (1919), Max Meldrum, his art and views, Alexander McCubbin, retrieved 4 November 2020CS1 maint: multiple names: authors list (link)
  4. ^ Serle, Percival (1949). "Newbury, Albert Ernest". Dictionary of Australian Biography. Sydney: Angus and Robertson. Retrieved 13 October 2009.
  5. ^ 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
  6. ^ Mclachlan, Scott (28 April 2017). "Presence and the Australian landscape". ART150: Celebrating 150 years of art. Retrieved 4 November 2020.
  7. ^ "MODERN ART". Age (Melbourne, Vic. : 1854 - 1954). 4 August 1937. p. 14. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  8. ^ "MODERN ART "BACK TO SAVAGERY"". Daily Telegraph (Sydney, NSW : 1931 - 1954). 6 November 1937. p. 2. Retrieved 3 November 2020.
  9. ^ "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.
  10. ^ "Can a Woman Be an Artist". The Mail (Adelaide). 27 (1, 391). South Australia. 21 January 1939. p. 1. Retrieved 10 August 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
  11. ^ "MARRIAGE BEFORE CAREER". The Herald (19, 245). Victoria, Australia. 21 January 1939. p. 8. Retrieved 10 August 2019 – via National Library of Australia.
Preceded by
Nora Heysen
Archibald Prize
for The Hon. G. J. Bell, Speaker, House of Representatives

for Dr. J. Forbes McKenzie
Succeeded by
William Dargie

External links[edit]