Tom Roberts, Twenty Minutes Past Three, 1886
39.37 x 29.25 in.
Tom Roberts (1856-1931) was a major Australian painter. Born in Dorset, England, his parents were newspaper editors there until the family moved to Melbourne in 1869. Roberts worked as a photographer's assistant in the 1870s and he began studying art at night. In 1881 he returned to England to study painting at the Royal Academy Schools until 1884. His early work shows a strong inclination toward Orientalism, which developed into an Impressionist or Post-Impressionist aesthetic. Roberts painted many landscapes and portraits, but was perhaps best known during his lifetime for his large-scale paintings exploring aspects of Australian life, such as Shearing the Rams (1890) and The Big Picture (1903). To my eye, Twenty Minutes Past Three is a stunningly interesting and hauntingly beautiful painting. The red of the room, the warm light from the lamp, the stark use of shadows, all make this work engaging and fascinating. However one of the most fascinating elements is the overwhelming sense of unknown. We have no idea the context or content of this scene. The woman has put aside her reading and risen from the table as the man edges around the door. We can just make out the clock face reading 3:20. Perhaps her husband has stayed out to the wee hours of the morning and she expected him home. One analysis I read suggested that he has been engaged in a futile search for their missing child. It is impossible for us to know, but the woman's anxiety is palpable. Roberts also places the action far back in the picture space, she in the middleground and he in the background, leaving the foreground relatively empty save for shadows. This makes us want to be closer to these figures and gives us space to enter into the scene. Although we do not know what is happening in this interaction, the painting is charged with tension and fraught emotion, which Roberts skillfully employs and conveys in this unusual and somewhat maddening painting.