View on the South Side of Moorea, Tahiti 1836. Conrad MARTENS.

View on the South Side of Moorea, Tahiti 1836

Sydney: 1836.

Watercolour on board, 440 x 640 mm, signed and dated lower right: C. Martens 1836; mounted and framed, overall size 80.5 x 100 cm.

Martens' Tahitian Idyll

This large scale and early watercolour of Moorea, Tahiti was painted in Sydney soon after Conrad Martens' arrival, based on his pencil sketch done "on the spot" in 1835.

This large scale and early watercolour of Moorea, Tahiti was painted in Sydney soon after Conrad Martens' arrival, based on his pencil sketch done "on the spot" in 1835.

The voyage of HMS Beagle is today famously linked to Charles Darwin, while a surprising number of people who sailed on her have become part of Australian history. Robert Fitzroy became a governor of New Zealand whilst John Clements Wickham, Phillip Gidley King and Conrad Martens all settled in Australia.

A pupil of Copley Fielding, Martens' early sketchbooks show his familiarity with the works of Turner, Varley, Cox, Girtin and Burnett, with a special interest in the effects of rain clouds and mist. But it is specially during Martens' time travelling on the Beagle accompanied by scientists and naval men, skilled observers and often themselves proficient draughtsmen, that his work become more empirical and topographical. As well as providing an accurate visual account he worked in capturing distinctive moods and subtle atmospheres. Bernard Smith comments (European Vision and the South Pacific 1768-1850) that 'Tahiti provided an ideal subject in which to combine classical idealism and scientific accuracy because in that island, as it was generally agreed, nature herself approached the classical ideal… coconut-palm replaces olive-tree…[Tahitians] replace Arcadian [shepherds]… the precipitous peaks of the interior of the island replace the hills of Campagna'.

Martens had replaced Augustus Earle as the Beagle's artist in Montevideo in 1833, while the ship was under the command of Robert Fitzroy. It was here that he met the young Charles Darwin: they became lasting friends. 'His association with Darwin and the other scientists heightened his perception of landscape forms, climatic effects and the unique qualities of the exotic coastal areas through which they passed. It may also have resulted in his life long interest in astronomy. Several of his Tahitian drawings were later purchased in Sydney by Fitzroy' (Dictionary of Australian Artists, p. 513).

Abruptly, possibly having to do with the volatile temperament of Captain Fitzroy, Martens was forced to leave Charles Darwin and the Beagle in Valparaiso, travelling on to Tahiti in December 1834 aboard the American schooner Peruvian, "which was about to sail for Tahiti... there were thence frequent opportunities of a passage to go to N.S.Wales" (Martens "Journal" ff 89-90). The beauty of the Tahitian islands astonished him; just a few months later he again boarded another American ship, Black Warrior, this time heading for Port Jackson.

Martens arrived in Sydney in April 1835, where he would remain for the rest of his life, just on 43 years. He arrived with an important letter of introduction, written in Valparaiso by Robert Fitzroy to his predecessor as captain of the Beagle, Phillip Parker King, now settled on his property "Dunheved" near Penrith. "This letter played a major role in determining the artist's future in New South Wales". (Elizabeth Ellis, Conrad Martens, 1994, p. 16). With the help of this valuable connection to the former governor, Martens quickly attracted wealthy patrons and was commissioned to paint in watercolour and oils their houses and estates throughout the colony, becoming an unique figure in colonial art,

It was the voyage with Darwin on the Beagle, arguably the most famous voyage of exploration in the nineteenth century, that had the most profound and lasting effect on Martens both privately and professionally: the survival of this beautiful watercolour is testimony to this.

Related sketch:

View on the South Side of Moorea 1835, pencil on paper, from Sketchbook I, no. 81, The Collection of Cambridge University Library, Cambridge.


Sydney, S.H. Ervin Museum and Art Gallery, "Conrad Martens Centenary Exhibition", 24 May-23 July 1978, no. 10. Sydney,

Art Gallery of New South Wales, "Conrad Martens, The H.W.B. Chester Memorial Collection", 22 December 1979 -10 February 1980, no. 5 (illustrated in colour), where the catalogue description reads: 'Martens departed from Tahiti in 1834 and this work exemplifies his habit to complete sketches or re-work them later'.

Provenance: Christies, Sydney, 6 June 1976, lot 288; Collection of Kenneth. R. Stewart; Consolidated Press Holdings, Melbourne (The H.W.B. Chester Memorial Collection); Collection of Dr. J. L. Raven; Sotheby's, Fine Australian Paintings including the Dr. John L. Raven Collection, Melbourne, 17 April 1989, lot 343; Private collection, Western Australia; Leonard Joel, Melbourne, June 2021.

Condition Report: Good overall condition, slight discolouration in sky at top edge of board; mounted and framed, overall size 80.5 x 100 cm.

Price (AUD): $59,000.00

US$42,175.94   Other currencies

Ref: #5000579

Condition Report