The squatter’s daughter created a stir in Australia when it was first exhibited in 1924 because Lambert was concerned with creating a new way of painting Australian landscape. He assimilated the blue-and-gold palette that Streeton had used to convey the heat and glare of the Australian scene, but he moved from an intuitive response to the land to a more formalist approach. He counterbalanced the strong verticals of the trees with the triangular shape of the hill and the horizontal streak of green grass in the lower centre of the picture. He painted with tight, controlled brushstrokes, so the image seems still, but lifelike, with the trees and grass embalmed by a sharp, scintillating light. He observed in around 1927 that ‘when the Apple gum gilded by the dying sun comes up for technical analysis, the memories of Giorgione’s famous tree ... make it look more beautiful’ (ML MSS 97/8, item 5).
The illusionism of the scene encourages us to look at it as an image of a particular person in a specific place at a certain time – as a picture of Gwendoline ‘Dee’ Ryrie in white shirt and jodhpurs leading her horse (which Lambert had given her) across the family property, Micalago, during the Christmas and New Year of 1923–24.
Lambert’s prime interest, however, in The squatter’s daughter was in conveying a universal squatter’s daughter. He gave it a generic title rather than the specific ‘Gwendoline Ryrie at Micalago’ , to indicate that it was an image of Australian life.
Lambert attacked the intuitive approach to landscape and, in response, critics such as Howard Ashton maintained that Lambert’s work lacked emotion. But this was his aim. He advised young landscape painters that there was always perfect design in nature and that they should reduce it to definite forms, as he had simplified the mass of the hill and sharpened its outline in The squatter’s daughter .
He portrayed the figure of the squatter’s daughter as if she were located artificially in her environment, as if she were a cut-out shape pasted onto it. He described her as passing ‘gracefully across the foreground’ and looking ‘like a figure on a Greek vase’ (ML MSS 97/8, item 5), indicating that he purposely presented her in profile in an arranged pose and detached from her setting. He intentionally created a stylised view.
That the girl is not immersed in the landscape (as in A bush idyll c.1896, cat.3), but merely passes across the land, is appropriate. By the 1920s many Australian landowners did not need to work their properties themselves but were able to employ others to do so, and a number of city dwellers had the time and money to visit the rural areas for their health and for recreation. The squatter’s daughter reflects this new relationship of Australians with the land.
Lambert’s formalist response in this paintinginspired other painters. Hans Heysen wrote on 20 August 1924 that it was ‘different from anything else painted in Australia’ (ML MSS 285/87), and in 1930 that it was a picture which ‘in its search for character and form’, was ‘an object lesson for the young landscape painters of Australia’ (Lambert 1930). In 1931, Lionel Lindsay commented:
When the ‘Squatter’s Daughter’ was first shown, to the best of my knowledge, only three Australian artists proclaimed its originality and truth. Such a break with suave sentiment and surface drawing met with a protective opposition – here was almost attack upon established income. It was pronounced hard, untrue, unsympathetic. To-day we know this landscape to possess the largest local truth, supreme draughtsmanship and design, and to exhale the very spirit of Australia (AA 1931).
As a result of Lambert’s example and his denunciation of the sentimental Australian landscape, artists began to make changes in their work. They came to believe that they should now explore organic form, seek greater simplicity and use sharper contours.
Lambert thought highly of The squatter’s daughter , asking 500 guineas for it at a time when he received only £500 for his most significant battle painting, The charge of the 3rd Light Horse Brigade at the Nek 1924 (cat.95), on which he worked for several years. Lambert sold The squatter’s daughter
to George Pitt-Rivers in England in 1926.
Henry Lawson had published a poem called ‘The squatter’s daughter’ in 1889, of which Lambert no doubt was aware. It related the story of a wealthy squatter who encouraged his daughter to become engaged to a wealthy lordling; however, she elopes with a stockman instead. Eventually the father becomes reconciled with the daughter and son-in-law.
In 1910 a silent film was produced, based on a 1907 stage melodrama with the same title and same cast. It was written by Edmund Duggan and Bert Bailey. In 1933 The squatter’s daughter , a sound film, featured a strong young horsewoman in jodhpurs who saves the family property.