Elioth Lauritz Leganyer Gruner (1882-1939), landscape artist, was born on 16 December 1882 at Gisborne, Poverty Bay, New Zealand, younger son of Elliott Grüner, bailiff, and his Irish wife Mary Ann (d.1922), née Brennan. His father was born of German parentage in Christiania (Oslo) and later migrated to New Zealand. In 1883 the family settled in Sydney, where Gruner from 1894 had drawing lessons from Julian Ashton. At 14 he became a draper’s assistant, and attended classes at Ashton’s art school, where he met George Lambert, who remained a lifelong inspiration.
From October 1901 Gruner exhibited regularly with the Society of Artists, Sydney, and from 1907 attracted serious attention. An important admirer was Norman Lindsay; from about 1913 he frequently visited Lindsay at Springwood, where he painted with Harley Griffiths.
Despite the responsibility of supporting his mother, Gruner left his job in 1912 to manage the Fine Arts Society’s Bligh Street gallery and shop, dealing solely with Australian art. In 1914 he became an assistant at Ashton’s Sydney Art School, but did not like teaching. In 1915 he visited Melbourne and painted with Griffiths and with Max Meldrum, whose tonal theories strongly affected his vision and technique; he also visited the National Gallery of Victoria to see Corot’s ‘The Bent Tree’. He assisted with the organization in 1916 of an exhibition of the work of J. J. Hilder, whose influence was also important. Until the end of the decade Gruner produced his finest work, arising out of an intense lyrical preoccupation with the effects of, and even the very substance and nature of, light. His almost pantheistic obsession, which manifested itself mainly around Emu Plains and Windsor in the plein air style he had learned from Ashton, inspired Lindsay to the most extravagant praise in print. Gruner was awarded the Wynne prize for 1916 for the painting ‘Morning Light’ (and was to win six more times—1919, 1921, 1929, 1934, 1936 and 1937).
Deeply disturbed by Australia’s involvement in World War I, he fretted about being safely home when others were suffering; and in October 1917 told Hans Heysen that ‘I cannot hope for any peace of mind until I am trying to do something to repair the damage done the unfortunate victims of the ghastly tragedy’. He enlisted in the Australian Imperial Force on 4 June 1918, went into Liverpool camp and was discharged on 31 December.
In 1919 Gruner’s acceptance by the official art world was further confirmed when the trustees of the National Art Gallery of New South Wales commissioned a painting, ‘Valley of the Tweed’. In 1923 his friend Howard Hinton paid his passage overseas. In London Gruner reluctantly agreed to manage the Society of Artists’ exhibition of Australian art at Burlington House. Sir William Orpen, unaware that he was being escorted around the exhibition by the artist, pungently criticized Gruner’s paintings; embarrassed, Orpen later made more constructive comments that were to change Gruner’s style dramatically. He spent two years in Europe and was impressed by the paintings of Cézanne and Gauguin. When he returned to Sydney early in 1925, he accepted Orpen’s advice to make smaller pictures, thin down his paint and achieve a drier, pastel-like surface; he steered towards an English style of modernism, interpreting the rhythmic anatomy of the earth as seen from a higher vantage-point, which tended to flatten forms. His tonality grew even more sombre in the 1930s. In the late 1920s his paintings sold extremely well and a large loan exhibition of his work was mounted by the Art Gallery in Sydney in 1932.
Of medium height and weight, Gruner ‘was fair, with a slight squareness of face from his Nordic father, and a faintly humorous twitch up at the corners of lips … He was slow-moving and slow-spoken, with a well modulated voice’. Beneath the surface of his success and recognition he was desperately unhappy and in later years drank more and more. According to Jack Lindsay, ‘He could not achieve a settled love-relationship and remained at an uneasy bisexuality’. Shy and reticent, he was painfully sensitive to the smallest criticism of his work, destroying many pictures which caused him dissatisfaction. Gruner was fearful of persecution and occasionally prone to frustrated outbursts of anger. He also felt uncomfortable when overpraised. His double existence—long periods of painting in the field while living in primitive conditions contrasted with the fastidious and stylish social life he led in the city—underscored his final despair of identity and purpose.
Suffering from chronic nephritis, Gruner died at his home at Waverley on 17 October 1939 and was cremated with Anglican rites. Next year the Art Gallery mounted a memorial exhibition of his work. A self-portrait is privately owned.
Written by Barry Pearce in 1983 for the Australian Dictionary of Biography