Considered the first historical painting in the Australian colonies, Benjamin Duterrau’s The Conciliation is an idealised depiction of the British ‘Protector of the Aborigines’, George Augustus Robinson, at the centre of a group of Tasmanian Aboriginal people. It refers to Robinson’s role as a ‘conciliator’ between the Aborigines and white settlers during the period of 1829–1834, where the aim was to ‘civilise’ and ‘Christianise’ the Aboriginal population.
This process involved Robinson travelling around the island and gathering together the Aboriginal people, which eventually led to their transportation and segregation on Flinders Island. Here, many Aboriginal people died from disease and maltreatment, and Robinson’s efforts resulted in the decline of their population. The surviving 47 Aboriginal people were moved to Oyster Cove, back on the Tasmanian mainland, in 1847.
Duterrau’s painting is significant – not only because it romanticises Robinson as a heroic saviour, but also because he was the only colonial painter to concentrate on Robinson and the topic of the conciliation. Duterrau’s objective was to create a ‘National Picture’ which could “extend feelings of universal philanthropy” – rather than dwell on the problems of colonisation. The extent to which Duterrau idealises Robinson in this painting reflects this goal and perhaps tells us more about Duterrau’s Christian values than it does about the reality of the conciliation. Duterrau’s central placement of Robinson, the mystical gesture of his hand towards the heavens, and the collective focus of the Aboriginal people around him all portray Robinson as a Christ-like figure.
With such an emblematic portrayal of Robinson, the painting is considered the first example of allegorical – or ‘history’ – painting in the Classical style in Australia. This smaller version is also the study for Duterrau’s proposed epic (3.04 m x 4.26 m) National Picture – the search for which continues to inspire many art historians today.