This term is used in various ways to refer to a group of artists who were at the forefront of progressive developments in late 19th-century Australian art. The major figures of the so-called Heidelberg School are customarily deemed to be the painters Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton, Frederick McCubbin and Charles Conder, though there were other important individuals, including women artists. As coined by the critic Sidney Dickinson in the monthly journal Australasian Critic of 1 July 1891, the term Heidelberg School had a simple and precise meaning, describing those artists who painted the landscape in the open air around Heidelberg in the 1880s and 1890s. In their later, nostalgic recollections of the period, the artists themselves gave priority to the experience of their artists' camp at nearby Eaglemont, as distinct from their other camps, thus lending a popular credence to the notion of a distinct Heidelberg School. By the time the history of Australian art had begun to be written by William Moore, Bernard Smith and others in the 20th century, the term had gained a wider meaning, being used more generally to identify a generative phase in both Melbourne and Sydney art in the late 19th century.
The extension of Melbourne's railway system in the 1880s was accompanied by the establishment of artists' camps and new sketching grounds as Roberts, Streeton, Conder and other artists gained easy access to the city's 'suburban bush', particularly the hill country in the north-east, and the beach landscapes around Port Phillip Bay. Under the pervasive influence of French plein-air painting, they portrayed a naturalistic, intimate landscape with treatment that varied from delicately observed light and atmospheric effects to the portrayal of strong sunlight. At the same time they created large-scale figure paintings of bush subjects which both reflected, and were intended to appeal to, the burgeoning nationalistic sentiment of the day.
Yet these artists were 'city bushmen' whose sincere embrace of nature and the Australian bush was usually complemented by possession of 'picturesquely arranged' studios in the city where they supplemented their incomes by teaching students and undertaking portrait commissions. The apogee of this urban sophistication came in 1889 when Roberts, Streeton, Conder, McCubbin, Charles Douglas Richardson and two since-forgotten painters, Herbert Daly and R.E. Falls, staged their now famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition at Buxton's Art Gallery in Swanston Street. The major influence on the 182 small pictures, many of which measured approximately 9 by 5 inches (23 x 13 cm), was the aestheticism of the American-English artist James McNeill Whistler. The exhibition, intended to provoke a strong response from the public regarding the role of impressionism in the local context, received a predictably scathing review from the conservative art critic James Smith.
More recent accounts of the Heidelberg School have focused on the contribution of contemporary women artists, such as Jane Sutherland and Clara Southern who shared a studio in Grosvenor Chambers in Collins Street and who made day-excursions to the artists' camps in Box Hill and Eaglemont. In 1997 Banyule City established The Heidelberg School Artists' Trail which locates the sites of some famous pictures, while in 1998 Bayside City followed suit with the Coastal Art Trail - Celebrating the Heidelberg School.