The name refers to the rural area near Melbourne where practitioners of the style found their subjects, though usage expanded to cover other Australian artists working in similar areas.
The term was coined in 1891 by local art critic Sidney Dickenson, reviewing the works of Arthur Streeton and Walter Withers.
Works of the Heidelberg school are generally viewed as the first Western art to realistically and sensitively depict the Australian landscape as it actually is. Many earlier works look like European scenes and do not reflect the harsh sunlight, earthier colours, and distinctive vegetation of the land they painted.
Whilst Heidelberg has long since been absorbed into greater Melbourne, some of the scenes depicted in the most famous works of the school were of scenes on the floodplain of the Yarra River and are thus still recognizable. A walking trail in the area shows selected works at the places where they were painted.