Great Plains Studies, Center for


Date of this Version

Summer 1983


Great Plains Quarterly Vol. 3, No. 3, Summer 1983, pp. 131-145.


Copyright 1983 by the Center for Great Plains Studies, University of Nebraska-Lincoln


The European invasion of Australia and the American West in the nineteenth century brought a massive transformation of landscapes in the two continents through conflict with the indigenous populations and by the introduction of new and more intensive systems of resource use. As historians and historical geographers have acknowledged, the invasion was generally well documented, not only by the more literate pioneers and contemporaries but also, more importantly for any statistical analysis, by the emerging bureaucracies that administered the transfers of lands and collected the facts of land settlement, which the new societies saw as evidence of the success of the invasion.

Along with the scratch of pens and, later, the clatter of typewriters came the scrape of the artist's brush, pen, and palette knife, and the click of camera shutters. Historians of art and photography have recognized the concern for landscape in the nineteenth century; geographers have seen the artists' efforts as sources for study of the process of land settlement, providing two types of data, typographical and perceptual. Pioneer paintings contain information on land cover and land use for specific locations or areas and instances or periods of time, as well as information on contemporary knowledge of and attitudes to the landscapes depicted and, by inference, to the environment from which they were abstracted. Most of the studies have also pointed out the limitations of the sources, particularly those of the medium itself-the conventions and styles associated with landscape painting, the problem of the biases inherent in the system of artistic patronage, and the question of the extent to which the artist is representative of wider contemporary views.

Although much information on pioneer landscape paintings is available in the art histories of Australia and the United States, as yet no comparative study has appeared. The aim of this article is to provide a preliminary comparative analysis of landscape paintings as sources of information about the pioneer landscapes of Australia and the western United States in the nineteenth century. The focus is on the landscapes not only at the time of the European invasion but also as transformed by that invasion.


A comprehensive study would need to establish in considerable detail both what we now know of the landscapes of 1800 and the process of their transformation so that this information might be compared with the knowledge gained from landscape paintings. The present analysis, however, is limited to a brief indication of some relevant points.

In terms of terrain, natural vegetation, and climate, there are obvious parallels and major contrasts between the interiors of the two continents. The relative aridity and relatively flat surfaces of Australia-the "wide brown land" of the poets-contrast sharply with the more varied terrains, climates, and ecosystems of the United States. Generally speaking, the indigenous groups showed similar contrasts, between the relatively uniform cultures of the Australian aborigines and the more varied and "resilient" cultures of the American Indians.

There were some interesting parallels, however. In both areas, the Europeans moved out from the woodlands onto the drier grassland plains of the interior, where they had to modify institutions and resource management systems that had evolved in more humid environments. In both areas, occupation by Europeans resulted in more intensive uses of pastoral, agricultural, and mining resources, which required a significant transformation of the environment. By 1900 the transformation process was already well developed and the products established. The result was a new mix of people on the land, greatly increased population densities, new geometries of human artifacts, new patterns of land use, new systems of communication, and new flows of goods, people, and services.