John Webber's sketch of a possum, 1777, one of the earliest European works of art in Tasmania (ALMFA, SLT)

The earliest art in Tasmania is found in the rock engravings of Preminghana (Mount Cameron West). Of considerable antiquity (over 20,000 years), these abstract circular forms, variously interlaced and striped, appear to be related to the parietal art of south-east South Australia. Some European explorers and surveyors noted examples of Aboriginal bark painting, but regrettably none has been preserved. The only Tasmanian Indigenous art to have survived from the nineteenth century is a tiny pencil drawing c 1835 by the boy Lacklay (or Probelattener).

European art in Tasmania begins with the charts and coastal profiles of Abel Tasman's 1642 journal, and continues in the work of eighteenth-century British explorers. On Captain Cook's second voyage (1773), Captain Tobias Furneaux made the first Tasmanian landscape: a sketch of the south side of Adventure Bay, Bruny Island. On Cook's third voyage (1777), John Webber made studies of Aborigines, birds and a possum, and William Ellis also made natural history drawings. In 1792 George Tobin, on Bligh's Providence, drew coastal profiles, landscapes, a native hut and an echidna.

After the British came the French. In 1792–3, d'Entrecasteaux's cartographer Piron made drawings of native people and birds, subsequently engraved in Labillardière's published account of the voyage. The Enlightenment-scientific orientation of French exploration was exemplified in the Baudin voyage of 1800–04. When this expedition visited Van Diemen's Land in 1802, Nicolas-Martin Petit made sensitively-observed portrait studies of Aborigines, while Charles-Alexandre Lesueur produced detailed landscapes and zoological studies.

Prompted in part by such French interest, the British government soon established permanent settlement. From the first years of the colony of Van Diemen's Land there is very little art. Two early views of Sullivan's Cove were made by the gifted artist-forger James Grove and fellow-convict William Harrison Craig. Surveyor George Prideaux Harris produced a number of ornithological watercolours, and copies (by John Lewin) survive of several landscape subjects. As was often the case in the colonies, surveyors made a major contribution to the art history of landscape. Harris was followed by various talented draftsmen, including GW Evans in the 1810s–20s, George Frankland in the 1830s and Samuel Prout Hill and Frank Dunnett in the 1850s.

However, from the 1820s Tasmania's good artistic fortune lay in its involuntary cultural immigration scheme: the island was the chance destination of many of the most accomplished convict artists transported to Australia. Joseph Lycett included 25 plates of Tasmanian landscapes in his 1824 Views in Australia. While imprisoned, twice-transported CHT Costantini made descriptive watercolours of penal establishments, and after his release produced stiff but richly-detailed portraits of emancipist settlers and their homes. When sober, WB Gould was capable of delicate and precise scientific watercolours of flora and fish, but he was unreliable, and his signature still-life oils are formulaic and inconsistent in finish.

Thomas Bock, a skilled engraver, readily found employment cutting billheads and other illustrations for printers and publishers, but soon turned his hand to face-making. His watercolours of Tasmanian Aborigines have a remarkable presence, and his later, confident crayon drawings and polished oils made him the colony's most successful portrait painter. More gifted but less phlegmatic was the celebrity criminal TG Wainewright, whose mannered portrait sketches have a lightness and grace which belies the despair of their maker's exile. Another professionally-trained convict artist was the Norwegian Knut Bull, who proved equally at home in both landscape and portrait genres.

After Bock, the best-known Tasmanian colonial portraitist is Robert Dowling. In response to Dowling's early success, the Launceston community subscribed to a scholarship for him, and he became the first Australian artist to study in London, subsequently building a substantial career from colonial and orientalist subjects. Dowling was only the first of many artists of Tasmanian birth or upbringing who trained or made their reputations on the mainland of Australia or overseas. The twentith century diaspora includes Francis McComas, Tom Garrett, Gerald Lewers, Jean Bellette, Amie Kingston, Loudon Sainthill, Oliffe Richmond, Gwen Leitch Harris, Peter Clarke, Tony Woods, Kevin Lincoln, Fraser Fair and Rodney Pople.

Less familiar but equally accomplished was William Paul Dowling, an Irish political convict who differed from his namesake and contemporary both in media (pastel drawings and, later, overpainted photographs) and in patronage (often Roman Catholic). Henry Mundy is more obscure still, but known surviving works are of very high quality.

The island's location on the sea route to Sydney made it a not unusual port of call for itinerants and occasional visitors. August Earle spent time in Hobart Town in 1825 and 1828, drawing a panorama which was shown in London in 1831. Louis Le Breton visited with Dumont d'Urville's 1840 expedition, and Lieutenant Owen Stanley called on his old commander Sir John Franklin in the same year – both made local sketches. The painter and naturalist Ludwig Becker stayed for a year (1851–52) observing geology, flora and people, while Eugene von Guérard visited twice in search of the sublime, in 1855 and again twenty years later. Scene painter and landscapist William Duke worked in Hobart Town 1845–50, and is especially known for his lithographs and oils of the flourishing whaling industry. Conway Hart spent three years in the colony painting portraits (1854–7), George Rowe made an extended stop on the way home from the goldfields (1857–9), and Henry Gritten stayed for almost a decade (c 1854–63) painting topographical oils.

Of longer-term residents, John Glover had a successful forty-year career behind him in Britain before migrating to Van Diemen's Land in 1831 at the age of 63. His Tasmanian works of the 1830s, mostly views around his own property on the Nile River in the colony's mid-north, combine Picturesque convention with acute empirical observation, and often with Aboriginal staffage. They are undoubtedly the finest Australian landscapes of the early colonial period.

Another sexagenarian immigrant, Benjamin Duterrau, arrived in 1832. Although somewhat coarsely-painted, Duterrau's numerous settler portraits have considerable energy and charm. But he is best known for his ambitious, obsessive project to commemorate the Tasmanian Aborigines and their 'conciliation' by George Augustus Robinson. Realised in oil, etching and plaster relief, Duterrau's Aboriginal subjects include several versions of The National Picture, the first history painting produced in Australia. Two other notable Aboriginal portraits are the classicising plaster busts of Truganini and Wourredy by Benjamin Law, the first major sculptures produced in Australia.

Mary Morton Allport painted portrait miniatures and scientific watercolours in the 1840s and 1850s. The English watercolourist and drawing master John Skinner Prout moved to Hobart in 1844 after three years in Sydney. As well as his own work in watercolour and the published lithographic series Tasmania Illustrated, Prout is important as the inspiration and centre of an extensive amateur sketching culture, which included GTWB Boyes, Bishop Nixon, Simpkinson de Wesselow, Peter Gordon Fraser and William Porden Kay. This group organised the colony's first major art exhibition, in Hobart Town in 1845.

However, from the middle of the nineteenth century, gold and growth attracted most artist migrants to the mainland colonies, and Tasmania's visual culture stagnated somewhat along with its economy. A notable exception is writer and sketcher Louisa Anne Meredith, who drew landscapes of the east coast and published illustrated books in the 1860s and 1870s. This period also saw the emergence of WC Piguenit, Tasmania's first native-born artist of distinction. Another surveyor, Piguenit accompanied Scott and Sprent on explorations of the Central Highlands and west coast, developing the geological Romanticism and humid atmospheres which brought him success in Sydney from the 1880s, and which first defined the still-persistent 'wilderness aesthetic'. Perhaps the last of the colonials was Haughton Forrest (arrived 1876), a prolific painter of slick, detailed marines and landscapes which remain extremely popular in Tasmania today.

William Mather, AH Fullwood, Tom Roberts and Frederick McCubbin all visited towards the end of the nineteenth century, while Arthur (senior) and Minnie Boyd vacationed regularly in Hobart. Under such influences, Mabel Hookey, Blanche Murphy, Isabel Oldham and Louisa Swan established an impressionist/post-impressionist practice in Tasmanian art in the early part of the twentieth century, a trajectory maintained in the 1930s by the return home from London of painter and printmaker CL (Lily) Allport and from Sydney of the pastellist Florence Rodway.

Local production was sustained by the establishment of the Tasmanian Art Society, and encouraged and developed through the Hobart and Launceston Technical Schools. Lucien Dechaineux and Jack Carington Smith each ran the former for thirty years, and both exerted a powerful influence on twentieth-century art.

Between the wars, variant soft modernisms were pioneered by Mildred Lovett, Eileen Crow and Joan and Phyllis Pitman. Later, and most impressive in this vein of painting, are the colourist cubism of Dorothy Stoner, the energetic landscape expressionism of Margaret McNeill and Rosamund McCulloch and the subtly rich dotting and dappling of Edith Holmes. Better-known is the work of Carington Smith himself, whose sober formalesque, particularly in portraiture, won him numerous national commissions and awards through the 1950s and 1960s.

Tasmania's spectacular scenery and Mediterranean light made it a popular subject for landscape watercolourists in the twentieth century: from John Eldershaw in the 1930s to Robert Campbell in the 1940s to Carington Smith. From the 1960s onwards, the most prominent watercolourists were Max Angus and Patricia Giles, though Christine (Kit) Hiller employed the medium in some remarkable portraits from the 1980s.

The landscape also continued to influence the work of many later twentieth-century painters in oil and acrylic: from the glare-bleached hillsides of George Davis to the gestural wildernesses of Geoff Dyer, from the carefully-modulated sublime of Philip Wolfhagen to the dry postcolonial narratives of David Keeling. Even the abstractions of Tim Burns, Kerry Gregan and Michael Muruste reflect aspects of the natural world: light shimmering through the bush, the curvatures of clouds and waves. Visiting artists have found the environment equally inspiring: Roland Wakelin cézannised the hills of the Derwent Valley, Jan Senbergs scratched and scored the Queenstown hills, while in Lloyd Rees's last works Hobart and the Derwent estuary dissolve in light and air.

In the latter years of the twentieth century, Tasmanian art was dominated by the presence of the Tasmanian School of Art at the University of Tasmania, as the Hobart and Launceston Technical Colleges eventually became. The institution attracted and supported artists and teachers including the surrealist and filmmaker Dusan Marek, the abstract painter Anton Holzner and sculptors Peter Taylor, David Hamilton and Bob and Lorraine Jenyns. Outside the academy, Stephen Walker's frilled figurative bronzes totally dominated public sculpture, though more original three-dimensional work was produced by artists such as Ewa Pachucka, Rodney Broad, Gay Hawkes, Patrick Hall, Irene Briant, Curtis Hore and Jeff Burgess.

Printmaking, too, flourished at the School of Art from the late 1960s under Rod Ewins and Udo Sellbach. More recent artist-teachers in print media include Raymond Arnold, Milan Milojevic, Helen Wright and Barbie Kjar. Particular mention must be made of Bea Maddock. Tasmanian-born and Slade School-trained, Maddock became one of Australia's most highly-regarded printmakers before returning to the state in 1983. Maddock's ambitious postcolonial circumnavigation landscapes such as Terra Spiritus…with a darker shade of pale (1993–8) combine imperial topography and Aboriginal language text. They mark a full circle from the coastal profiles of the first European artists, and are an appropriate place to conclude this brief survey.

Further reading: J Kerr (ed), The dictionary of Australian artists, Melbourne, 1992; H & J Kolenberg, Tasmanian vision, Hobart, 1988; S Backhouse, Tasmanian artists of the twentieth century, Hobart, 1988.

David Hansen