Australia, 1800–1900 A.D.

  • Shield
  • Boomerang
  • Spear thrower
  • Club
  • Shield
  • Boomerang
  • Shield
  • Basket (Jawun)
  • Parrying Shield


1800 A.D.

1825 A.D.

"X-ray" style in Arnhem Land rock art, ca. 2000 B.C.–present

1825 A.D.

1850 A.D.

"X-ray" style in Arnhem Land rock art, ca. 2000 B.C.–present
Wandjina rock art tradition, West Kimberley, before 1837–present

1850 A.D.

1875 A.D.

"X-ray" style in Arnhem Land rock art, ca. 2000 B.C.–present
Wandjina rock art tradition, West Kimberley, before 1837–present

1875 A.D.

1900 A.D.

"X-ray" style in Arnhem Land rock art, ca. 2000 B.C.–present
Wandjina rock art tradition, West Kimberley, before 1837–present
Bark painting tradition, Arnhem Land, before 1878–present


Although the first British settlement is established in 1788, at the beginning of the nineteenth century the immense continent of Australia still remains almost completely unknown. During the 1800s, Europeans explore and settle what is, to them, a new land. They establish cities and towns, primarily on the relatively well watered eastern and southwestern coasts, as well as vast pastoral stations (ranches) for sheep and cattle in the remote and more arid interior, familiarly known as the “outback.” The European colonization of Australia leads to the often violent dispossession of the continent’s Aboriginal peoples from their homelands. It also leads to increasing European encounters with, and collection of, Aboriginal art. While late eighteenth-century settlers in the Sydney area had noted the presence of Aboriginal rock engravings, the explorations of the nineteenth century offer Europeans the first tantalizing glimpses of the richness and diversity of the rock art traditions of Arnhem Land, Queensland, the Central Desert, and the Kimberley. The century also sees the founding of most of Australia’s major museums and universities and the formation of the first substantial collections of Aboriginal art and artifacts, both within the country and abroad.

Throughout the 1800s, the artistic achievements of Aboriginal Australians remain largely unknown and unappreciated. The most spectacular rock art sites lie in remote locations seldom visited by Europeans. As nomadic peoples, who move from camp to camp within well-defined home territories, Aboriginals primarily produce easily portable utilitarian objects, though some of these objects are intricately decorated. As a result, some social theorists go so far as to assert that the Aborigines are a people without art. It is only toward the close of the century that Westerners begin to recognize the true breadth and diversity of Aboriginal artistic achievement.

Key Events

  • 1816

    Lachlan Macquarie, governor of New South Wales, announces a set of regulations designed to control the movement of Aborigines. Five areas are set aside as agricultural reserves for the settlement of Aboriginal people from the Sydney area.

  • 1817

    “Australia” becomes the official name of the southern continent.

  • 1836–37

    A committee of the British House of Commons, investigating the condition of Aborigines in the Australian colonies, condemns the genocidal war being waged by settlers against the native peoples and declares that the Aborigines have a “plain right and sacred right” to their land.

  • 1837

    Captain George Grey explores portions of the West and Central Kimberley region and becomes the first European to describe the unique Wandjina images of Kimberley rock art.

  • 1840

    The transportation of convicts is abolished in New South Wales.

  • 1840–46

    Missionaries of various denominations establish schools for Aboriginal pupils.

  • 1871

    The Australian Natives’ Association (ANA), an organization of Australian-born white men, is established in Melbourne to promote the vision of a united Australia.

  • 1877

    The New South Wales and Victoria cricket team defeats England in the first cricket test played in Australia.

  • ca. 1878

    The earliest surviving examples of Aboriginal bark paintings are collected in Western Arnhem Land.

  • 1880

    Dawn of Art, an early exhibition of Aboriginal drawings, is held in Adelaide.

  • 1880

    White outlaw Ned Kelly, who becomes a folk hero of the poor and underprivileged, is executed in Melbourne.

  • 1890–97

    Jandamarra, an Aboriginal resistance fighter, declares war on European invaders in the West Kimberley and hinders settlement for six years.

  • 1894

    Anthropologist Baldwin Spencer begins his collaborative research with Francis Gillen on the culture of the Arrernte (Aranta) people in Central Australia. Their subsequent book, The Native Tribes of Central Australia, documents for the first time the tremendous wealth of ceremonial art—much of it secret and ephemeral—produced by desert peoples. While many of these art forms are later considered culturally inappropriate by Aboriginals for public display, their core iconography, a series of symbols that represent people, places, and the movements of ancestral beings, eventually forms the basis of twentieth-century Western Desert acrylic painting.

  • 1897

    The Aboriginals Protection and Restriction of the Sale of Opium Act is enacted in Queensland, which dictates where Aborigines can live and work, who they can marry, and when they can practice cultural ceremonies. The Queensland act becomes the blueprint for similarly restrictive legislation in Western Australia (1905), the Northern Territory (1910), and South Australia (1911). Aborigines live under the shadow of this legislation for much of the twentieth century.


“Australia, 1800–1900 A.D.” In Heilbrunn Timeline of Art History. New York: The Metropolitan Museum of Art, 2000–. (October 2004)