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A colonial palimpsest : Benjamin Duterrau's portrayals of Aboriginal people
thesisposted on 2023-05-26, 05:47 authored by Tritton, AE
This thesis argues for Benjamin Duterrau's merited place in Australian colonial art history. It examines Duterrau's depictions of Aborigines, both formally and contextually, seeking to reignite interest in Duterrau's work and its importance in contemporary society. On a more general level, it is concerned with visual European responses to Aborigines and how those responses may be read by a modern-day audience. Since the sale of Duterrau's work immediately following his death in 1851, there has been no solo exhibition of his work. His colonial depictions of Aboriginal people have largely been overlooked by scholars whose attention has instead turned to Thomas Bock and John Glover. In comparison, Duterrau's work is often considered artistically amateur and his recordings of people and events inaccurate. Instead I argue that his images are important historical texts that can add new dimensions to understanding colonial ideologies and European relations with Aborigines. While there has been no significant study dedicated to Duterrau's work, other than Stephen Scheding's The National Picture (2002) which is primarily concerned with the whereabouts of one of Duterrau's paintings, scholarly work focusing on Duterrau has tended to see his work in terms of colonial propaganda. From the limited writings on Duterrau, The Conciliation (1840), Duterrau's painting of George Augustus Robinson surrounded by Aborigines, has attracted the greatest interest as it is widely accepted as the first history painting in Australia. The significant status of The Conciliation has sparked debates over the historical accuracy of its depiction. For many writers its place in art history continues to be problematic. Duterrau's oil portraits of Aborigines are also bathed in controversy. This thesis will engage with the differing views and provide an analysis of how Duterrau's work may be valued in contemporary Australian society. In doing so it reveals the contingencies of reading an historical artwork and the complex, emotional investments in portraits of Aborigines.
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