Tom Roberts
_The Golden Fleece_ 1894
AGNSW collection

Tom Roberts

The Golden Fleece


It is said that Australia 'rode the sheep's back' to prosperity. For a long time, wool was a major part of the economy, and it is still a valued export today. It is fitting that the Chinese character for 'auspicious' includes a radical of 'sheep'.

Painted over a century ago, this painting captures vanishing traditions such as the use of manual shears. The bottle on the windowsill in the picture contains oil to lubricate those shears. Unusually, there is a woman in this shearing shed, laying out the newly shorn fleece.

This was back-breaking work, in the heat, dust and smell, as the shearers tried to control the animals, and not cut them.

The title of this painting comes from an ancient Greek myth about a heroic journey for a golden fleece, but here the workers are the heroes. One of the Gallery’s most famous and popular artworks, it was painted by one of Australia's most important artists. He was a member of a group called the Heidelberg school. They were known as the Australian Impressionists because they painted outdoors, like French Impressionists such as Monet.

Roberts visited this shearing shed to paint during one of several stays at Newstead Station in northern New South Wales. The shed was built in 1857 and is preserved today, along with the old homestead, on what is still a privately-owned working property.

oil on canvas, 104 x 158.7 cm, purchased 1894, 648