University Of Tasmania

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The Art of genocide: Benjamin Duterrau’s The Conciliation

conference contribution
posted on 2023-05-24, 20:36 authored by Greg LehmanGreg Lehman
The Black War in Van Diemen’s Land sought the complete ‘extirpation’ of the island’s Indigenous nations. It culminated in the most ambitious military campaign in the history of the Australian colonies, and was ended by an historic treaty agreement authorised by Governor George Arthur in 1831. Benjamin Duterrau’s The Conciliation, considered to be Australia’s first epic history painting, commemorates this moment, providing what the Australian Museum of Democracy considers as one of Australia’s Founding Images. But does our reading of the painting today adequately acknowledge the milieu of the painting’s production, and its meaning for audiences of the time? Historian Bain Attwood suggests that The Conciliation was inspired by Benjamin West’s Penn’s Treaty with the Indians. However, this analysis fails to adequately consider the complexity of academic traditions represented in Duterrau’s composition.

This paper presents the results of recent research at the University of Oxford, suggesting thematic links for the painting that are more profound than those proposed by any previous author. It is argued that Duterrau was pointing to far more than simple parallels between colonial conflict in North America and Australia. The Conciliation is presented as an allegorical tale of conciliation, deception and fall from innocence; its roots in the French Revolution and Milton’s grand drama of Paradise Lost. The implications of this research add weight to recent calls by Henry Reynolds for a reappraisal of colonial conflict with Indigenous people in Australia, and demonstrate the need for a more critical reading of Australia’s early visual history.



Aboriginal Leadership


The Australian National University Canberra

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Art, War and Truth Conference

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The Australian National University

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  • Restricted

Socio-economic Objectives

Understanding Australia’s past