Walter Withers first joined the Heidelberg School artists Arthur Streeton, Tom Roberts and Charles Condor in their large wooden house on the Eaglemont estate in Heidelberg in October 1889, when his wife made a holiday visit to England. Entanced by the area, withers within a year returned with his family to live at Charterisville, which was only a short distance from Eaglemont. It was here that he completed Young Girl on Hillside, also known as Heidelberg.
the Heidelberg School played a decisive role in the rebirth of Australian landscape painting after the low ebb of the 1870s and 1980s, when its most important proponents, including Von Guerard and Buvelot, had ceased working. The Heidelberg School is characterised by, amongst other attributes, its preference for painting en plain air, "not so much to call forth feelings to awe and rapture, by displaying Nature in her grander mood, but to translate for our benefit the beauty that lies in familiar things." (H Topliss, op.cit, p. 21). To this end, Withers' preferred method of working was to strength his canvas over a board, secure it with a strap to sling over his shoulder, bicycle to his chosen location when his health permitted, and then to erect the canvas on a lightweight collapsible easle in front of his subject.
While retaining a preference for depicting the familiar landscape en plain air, Withers and his colleagues came to place great emphasis on capturing the effects of light. In YOung Girl on Hillside, Withers chooses a lighter and brighter palette than was customary: the cerilean sky with cumulus clouds evokes the heat of an Australian midsummer, while the lilac, gold and pale green of the rocky hillside emphasises the sun's bleaching effect. The beauty found in the familiar possibly extends beyond Withers' choice of landscape; as by 1894, the artist had three children, two daughters and a son. His eldest child was in her seventh year, and it is likely that she, and her young siblings at the crest of this hill, are the human subjects of this bucolic scene.
Despite choosing throughout his career to focus on scenes from his own experience, Withers was not parochial. Young Girl on Hillside, reveals the influence of the work of nineteenth century French Realist Jules Bastein-Lepage in his use of a "high horizon line prominent figure placed squarely against the landscape...The square brushstrokes in his canvas also recall the Legage influence." (ibid, p. 29)
For the structure of this painting, whithers owes much a Bastieb-Lepage, but his choice of subject and depiction of light and mood are unique atrributes of the Heidelberg School. The words of Streeton when describing his last summer at Eaglemont convey the essence of Withers' scene, "Fancy if you could grasp all you feel and condense your thought into a scheme which would embrace sweet sound, great colour and the soft, slow movement, sometimes quick with games, and through all the strength of the great warm loving sun... How we made sketches of the girls on the lawn. The lovely pure muslin, and gold, sweet grass-seeds..." (T Bonyhady, Images in Opposition, Melbourne, 1985, p. 153)
Withers' Young Girl on Hillside stands as one of the artist's best work, and as such forms one of the highlights of an artistic movement that has, over the course of the intervening century, come to take an a determinative importance in Australia's perception of its own light and landscape.