National Gallery of Victoria, Australia
The dynamic new art movement, Australian Impressionism, emerged and flourished in Melbourne in the 1880s. Many factors – the city’s booming economy, the surge in the sense of national identity, the increasing cultural sophistication of the city, the rise in leisure time and activities and the connection the artists had with the latest international art and ideas through trade and travel – created the context in which Australian Impressionism developed. The artists painted the life they saw around them in the city and the bush and coastal sites they could reach easily on the suburban rail network. The story of Australian Impressionism is closely linked with the story of Melbourne.
Frederick McCubbin (1855 - 1917) created some of the most popular paintings of early settler life and pioneers struggling to survive in the Australian bush. Born in Melbourne in 1855, McCubbin began studying art at 14, before going on to become a drawing master at the National Gallery of Victoria. In 1907, at age 52, he travelled to England and France for the first time. It had a dramatic impact on his future work.
Art historian Anna Gray says that McCubbin returned from this trip with a new vision. "He discovered the works of Turner, Constable and Monet. He also realized that Australia had more color and light than England and that changed the way he viewed the Australian landscape," she said. "He just came back home and looked at the landscape in a totally new way."
Mr. Radford, Director of the National Gallery of Australia, says the works McCubbin created after returning to Australia were much more modern. "In a sense it cleansed him from 19th century sentimental nationalistic pictures. He wasn't interested in the narrative after that; he wanted to be more modern, get straight into paintwork, animated light and color quite separate from storytelling, which was by then a little bit old fashioned," he said.
Frederick McCubbin’s father ran a bakery in King Street and McCubbin worked in the family business as well as a stint as solicitor’s clerk and working as a coach painter during his art training. On his early morning bread delivery rounds he saw the variety of workers in the city, the ‘carters and carriers, dealers and merchants, pie men and builders, boatmen and river pilots, lighter men and sailors, shinglers and night men emptying the city’s human waste’. He recalled his days driving the horse drawn bakers cart: ‘I shall never forget the mud in winter-time down on the swamp – the tracks round the Gas Works, the timber laying about and the narrow shaves from being capsized en route, and Bully Browns cook, how he swore. And sometimes we got stuck in the mud…’
He was trained at the National Gallery of Victoria’s art school from 1872 to 1886 and was drawing master there from 1886 to 1917. He lived in Melbourne and its surrounds for his entire life (bar a few months), and made Melbourne the central subject of his art. No other Melbourne artist was better known than he during his lifetime.
Girl with a bird at the King Street bakery, 1886
Winter Evening, Hawthorn
Oil on canvas, 1886
Castlemaine Art Gallery and Historical Museum
Gift of J. T. Tweedle, 1926
McCubbin's Winter Evening, Hawthorn (above) is instructive. Painted in the middle of the first suburban boom, the City of Melbourne appears as muted, brooding and ill-defined background to the honeyed tones of the bushman's world of nature performed as benign if dry and unkempt pastoral land. Yet this was no bushman's world. Hawthorn was a bustling suburb, whose population of six thousand clustered around the rail line providing easy access to and escape from the city (McAuliffe 1996, 46); a city whose treeless and densely built expanse in the 1880s. With their homes safely cosseted from the noise, dirt and crowds of the city, both working and middle class suburbanites took great pride in the rapid, gold-fed metamorphosis of Melbourne from a small town in 1850 into an international centre of commerce and culture that in 1890 hosted a lavish international exhibition of its achievements (G. Davison 1978).
McCubbin permits only the merest glimpse of the suburban future that was fast arriving in places like Hawthorn, on the hillside beneath the bushman's rustic cottage. Yet, like many other artists who have brought anti-urban imagination to the task of imaging Australia's socio-natural essence, McCubbin unwittingly provides an intensely suburban vision. In celebrating the lone pioneer whose house sits tranquil isolation in the shade of gum trees yet within easy reach of the energies and opportunities of the city, McCubbin implicitly imaged suburban desires familiar to many twenty-first century Australians, especially the growing number who continue to move towards the edge of the cities in search of space, peace and beauty.
National Gallery School, Melbourne, 1887
© 2010 State Library of Victoria
McCubbin would become a predominant figure in the 'Heidelberg School' of Australian art. The Heidelberg school was foremost influenced by the European impressionism movement. It abandoned the laborious attention to detail, produced within the studio, emphasizing 'plein air' or open air landscape painting, the instantaneous effects of lighting, and also experimentation with visible brushstrokes. Works reflecting the style of the school were not 'finished' to the polished levels of those of Von Guerard or even Buvelot, but with all its quirks and the influences it took from Europe, the school, which was more like a club consisting of artists who took excursions to Heidelberg in the late 1880's/early 1890s, and in particular McCubbin, who maintained a slightly heightened sense of realism when compared with his colleagues, produced many works which captured the feel of the Australian landscape and general atmosphere to a degree surpassing all previous attempts.
After all, the artistic skills of those who came before and influenced McCubbin were imported, in some sense, as opposed his own which he developed at the same time as he grew around the subject matter he would come to depict.
In 1877, he moved to the NGV's school of painting under Eugene von Guerard, but that same year, his father died, and McCubbin had to run the family bakery. He continued studying and exhibiting, and sold his first painting, View Near Fishermen's Bend, in the Victorian Academy of Arts 1880 exhibition. He married Annie Moriarty in 1889 and they had seven children, one of whom died as a toddler. The family lived at Blackburn, Brighton and Mount Macedon.
Working together with Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder in Melbourne between 1885 and 1890, McCubbin was part of the legendary group in Australian art—the Australian impressionists. He was also a friend of E Phillips Fox and Tudor St George Tucker, and his association with them expanded his approach to art.
McCubbin had a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He was kindly, sincere and single-minded in his outlook. He was energetic, fun, warm and gregarious—and would gesticulate freely with his arms and hands. He was a thinking man, and he liked to make others think and laugh; an extensive and discriminating reader, particularly of biography and high fiction, he enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics.
In 1886 he was appointed drawing master of the school of design and held this position for the rest of his life. A group of professional artists led by McCubbin, Roberts, John Ford Paterson and others broke away from the Victorian Academy of Art in 1887 and formed the Australian Artists' Association. A committee-member, McCubbin participated in the association's exhibitions until it amalgamated with the academy in 1888 as the Victorian Artists' Society. McCubbin served as a councillor of the society from the beginning and was president in 1903-04 and 1909. He contributed regularly to its annual exhibitions until 1912, when he resigned to join with seven other artists to form the Australian Art Association as its first president.
Down on his Luck (detail)
Oil on canvas,1889
Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth
Arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York
opening of the first Federal Parliament
Oil on pine panel, 1901
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
In this small sketch (above) McCubbin depicted the arrival of the Duke and Duchess of Cornwall and York, to open the first Federal Parliament in the Melbourne Exhibition Building on Friday 9 May 1901. The triumphal arch dominates the composition on the left, connecting the dark, scumbled foreground with the gold brushstrokes of the sky. McCubbin suggested the procession through the columns with the fluttering banners. Although he did not depict any figures, he created a sense of pageantry.
This oil was ‘painted on the spot’, but McCubbin ‘took some liberties with the subject by leaving out the unsightly “screen”, which was placed at the near end of the bridge’ (McCubbin 1949). He explored this subject more fully in his large-scale painting, Arrival of the Duke and Duchess of York, Melbourne, 1901 (cat 10), completed after his return from Europe in 1907.
The temporary Civic Arch was designed by the architect Harold Desbrowe-Annear for the triumphal procession. Placed near the centre of Princes Bridge, it transformed the bridge into an imposing gateway to Melbourne. The structure was similar to the Arc de Triomphe (1808) in Paris, and the Marble Arch (1828) in London, which followed the model of the Roman triumphal arches. It included the French motto from the British coat-of-arms (‘Dieu et mon droit’), and the Latin motto of the City of Melbourne (‘Vires acquirit eundo’).Extending from the arch was the bow of an ancient barge, with six oars inscribed with the names of the States. A lion’s head symbolized the Empire. The arch was intended to stand for 12 months. Sadly, however, only two weeks after the celebrations it was already beginning to deteriorate. (The arch was one of the nine temporary ceremonial arches built in Melbourne in May 1901 for the Duke and Duchess’s visit.)
Oil on canvas, 1904
National Gallery of Victoria Felton Bequest 1906
Taken from ngv.vic.gov.au
Karen Quinlan with Frederick McCubbin’s The Pioneer
McCubbin is remembered often for his portrayal and celebration of, what was the Australian bush life. Perhaps his most famous work along these lines is 'The Pioneer' (above) from 1904, which expresses an affectionate portrayal of the lives those freemen who, in the time subsequent to the convict era, layed the foundations, in terms of managing to settle in isolated parts of the harsh bush and farm, for a civilization that would subsequently flourish.
From 1907 to 1917 McCubbin produced his most brilliant works, ones which express his sense of delight in, and comfort within, the Australian landscape. He made a major change in his approach to his art when he returned to Melbourne after his first and only trip to Europe in 1907, aged 52.
In his last impressions McCubbin painted sparkling landscapes. He used many colors—pinks, purples, blues, yellows, reds and a huge variety of green. And he captured the effects of light: the light of early morning and early nightfall, the glow of the setting sun and its afterglow. He conveyed the cool of winter and the warmth of summer, as well as the crackle of the undergrowth and the rustle of wind in the trees.
(Figure on a hillside in a summer landscape)
Oil on canvas, 1907
Courtesy Lauraine Diggins Fine Art, Melbourne
Figure on a hillside in a summer landscape (above) shows trees which have been killed for clearing, with the characteristic white of death by ring barking. The tall bare skeletal trees crossing the hillside show the extent to which the landscape has been impacted upon.
McCubbin nonetheless created poetry out of the scarred landscape, with the hill rolling down to the undulating plain beyond, and the mountains pressing in behind. He used a palette of greens, pinks, and blues, enlivened by the patch of red on the figure on the right. He depicted the scene in the late afternoon, with shadows creeping over the hills and on the hollows in the ground.
This work is most likely to be the one titled ‘Blue and gold’, exhibited in McCubbin’s May 1907 exhibition. A reviewer noted that in that exhibition the works ‘in which Mr McCubbin’s best qualities appear’ included Study in blue and gold, and that: ‘In all of these the closest scrutiny of nature is observed, and, added to honest craftsmanship, are freedom from artifice or trick, sentiment of perception and intuition’ (Argus, 17 May 1907, p 9).
In 1907 McCubbin also painted a portrait of Eileen Watkins (just before she became Mrs Isidore Kozminsky) which was likewise entitled ‘Blue and gold’—but the work referred to in the review as being ‘a close scrutiny of nature’ would appear to be a landscape rather than this portrait. McCubbin frequently used the same or similar titles for different works, and this would appear to be the case in this instance.
Oil on canvas, 1908
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
McCubbin painted at least six self-portraits, of which this (above), painted at the age of 53, is one of the most intimate and searching. Here he adopted a spare composition, and created an image that is convincing in its subtle modeling of the head. He applied his paint thinly, building up the flesh tones carefully, especially on the left side of the face.
He may well have based this head and shoulders portrait on Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 34, which he could have viewed in detail in the National Gallery, London, in 1907. As in Rembrandt’s portrait, McCubbin depicted himself in a self-assured pose, in half-figure view, with moustache and wearing a beret. He tilts his chin, and looks out with a sideways gaze.
McCubbin was given a book on Rembrandt by his students in 1906. The book’s author Émile Michel observed that Rembrandt recognized in the eyes and the mouth the most significant features of the human face, the features which best reveal the expression of life and the process of thought … While the likeness is evidently closely studied, his personages are distinguished by a mysterious and transparent profundity of gaze, inviting us to a closer and more lingering study of their individuality. It is this which makes it impossible to forget some of these portraits (Émile Michel, Rembrandt: a memorial 1606–1906, William Heinemann, London, 1906, p 42). Likewise, in McCubbin’s work, it is the eyes and the gaze which give the portrait life.
In his ‘Reminiscences’ of c 1910–11, McCubbin noted that as a young man he had hoped ‘that someday I might paint pictures like (those) I saw (in) engravings of Titian and Turner and Rembrandt’ (‘Autobiographical reminiscences’, SLV, p 22). He had earlier written to his wife Annie on 11 July 1907 that the portraits by Rembrandt that he had seen were ‘so intimate and familiar’ (Mackenzie 1990, p 257), something that could also be said of McCubbin’s own self-portrait.
At one time this work belonged to McCubbin’s friend, William Montgomery (1850–1927), a leading Melbourne stained-glass artist, a President of the Victorian Artists’ Society and a Trustee of the Public Library and National Gallery of Victoria from 1916 until his death. Montgomery sponsored McCubbin and his friends in their noted 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition (1889) by advertising in the catalogue.
Oil on canvas, 1908
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide
Gift of T.C. Lothian, 1960
This enchanting homely scene (above) shows the garden of the artist’s house ‘Carlesberg’, at 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra, in Melbourne. The property comprised approximately three acres (1.2 hectares) of garden, extending down to the banks of the Yarra River, prior to the construction of Alexandra Avenue. It included a peppercorn tree, fruit trees and areas of natural bush in which acacias and gum trees grew, with daffodils and jonquils in spring. The painting shows a section of the overgrown garden, with hens, and a water tub for the family cow. A fence recedes diagonally into the distance where the view extends beyond the neighbouring estate of ‘Como’, to distant Burnley.
One of the first important works that McCubbin painted at South Yarra, Winter sunlight was one of a series of brilliant impressionistic landscapes painted on his return from overseas in 1907. Free of narrative, it is painted with vigor and exudes new energy—no doubt the result of his recent viewing of European art. McCubbin employed a range of techniques to apply the paint rapidly, using brush and palette knife to produce rich and lively effects. This tranquil scene is a lyrical evocation of the soft light of winter, the time of year McCubbin described as ‘that season of broken sunlight’ with its ‘dreamy soft atmosphere’ (MacDonald 1916, p 87).
(Rebecca Andrews at nga.gov.au)
Oil on canvas, 1907
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
Purchased with assistance of a special grant
Government of Victoria, 1979
This view of road builders (above) is one of a number of images of the city and of workers that McCubbin painted, and which reflect his interest in depicting contemporary life. He placed the road on a diagonal to the picture plane, leading into the composition. The viewpoint is only just above the street, and the horizon line is low. McCubbin rapidly applied his colors in small patches, using a light touch, and gave a unity to the overall scene through the textures of his paint.
Oil on canvas, 1912
Item held by National Gallery of Australia
The most poetic of McCubbin’s late paintings, Afterglow (above) returns in composition and mood to the inspiration of some earlier works. Some of these landscapes had already shown the influence of Camille Corot, but now there was a very different and very modern application of animated broken color. Broad palette-knife flecks of reds, indigoes and olives suggest the brown trees; the foreground is rendered with boldly applied pinks and greens. McCubbin had admired Corot’s work, through reproductions; long before the National Gallery of Victoria bought that artist’s The bent tree with great fanfare and expense in 1907. One of McCubbin’s scrapbooks includes black-and-white illustrations of Corot’s paintings, among which is The bath of Diana now held by the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Bordeaux. The composition makes an interesting comparison with Afterglow—both have a transparent coulisse of trees above a water’s edge and bathers, though McCubbin has only a single bather entering the water while three companions remain naked on the grass.
Afterglow had not been shown at the National Gallery of Australia for nearly 20 years until the Gallery’s Conservation Department completed extensive cleaning and restoration in late 2005. Removal of clumsy patches, old repaints, and hardened and darkened household varnish, restored this faded masterpiece to its former glory. X-ray photographs taken during the conservation process reveal that the landscape was painted over a female portrait facing left, in vertical format, probably executed about a decade earlier. A newly made period frame, in the Thallon frame-maker’s style much used by McCubbin, now appropriately surrounds Afterglow.
(Gray & Radford, McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907–17, National Gallery of Australia, 2009 Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010)
Oil on canvas, 1912
In The coming of spring (above) Frederick McCubbin demonstrated his longstanding interest in evoking qualities of light and the atmospheric conditions particular to each season. He skillfully manipulated the surfaces of his paintings to create a sense of dappled light and used luminescent colors and layers of paint to develop a rich and textured finish.
The view in this work is from the artist’s garden on Kensington Road in Melbourne’s South Yarra, looking over the river to the industrial suburb of Richmond. McCubbin completed a number of paintings from this garden, delighting in the seasonal variation and the subtleties of the environment. In The coming of spring the banks of the Yarra River are covered with the new growth of the season; a cow in the foreground grazes on the soft, damp grasses. Looking into the distance we see Richmond and the city of Melbourne beyond.
McCubbin’s paintings of his home environment are important statements by the artist, who claimed that:
It is precisely the pictures of things familiar to us of homely subjects … which most appeal to us and more often therefore rise to true greatness … the farm with its neighboring clump of gum trees, the fields that merge into wayward forests, the winding road with its bullock wagons, men and women toiling, horses and cattle and all things that savor of man.
(Bridget Whitelaw, The art of Frederick McCubbin, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1991,at nga.gov.au)