Frederick McCubbin is one of Australia’s most famous and significant painters. He was born in Melbourne, 25 February 1855 and died in Melbourne, 20 December 1917. McCubbin was a baker’s son, who soon joined the family business and drove a baker’s cart before being apprenticed to a coach-painter. He started his training in art and design from 1869 at the local Artisans’ School of Design in Carlton, and by 1872 entered the School of Design, National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne. It was not until the Munich-trained George Folingsby (1828–91) was appointed master of the Gallery Art School in 1882 that McCubbin received a thorough academic training in figure painting.
Folingsby evoked McCubbin’s interest in large-scale history pieces with a pronounced national flavour. From the colonial artist and Swiss émigré Abram-Louis Buvelot, McCubbin absorbed a more intimate, Barbizon-style vision of the Australian landscape. Julian Ashton directed his attention to subjects from contemporary life and introduced him to plein-air painting. In the mid-1880s McCubbin’s growing adherence to plein-air Realism was strengthened by the influence of Portuguese-born Arthur Loureiro (1853–1912) and, more dramatically, by the impact of Tom Roberts, recently returned from Europe in 1885.
With Roberts and Arthur Streeton he founded the painting camp at Box Hill, in the suburbs of Melbourne, that became known as the Heidelberg School. The Realists’ concern with the integrity and significance of the subject shaped McCubbin’s fundamental attitudes to art. Unlike Roberts and Charles Conder (a fellow Heidelberg painter), McCubbin was only marginally influenced by the Aesthetic Movement, and he exhibited a token five works at the famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition in Melbourne in 1889.
As one of the founders of the Heidelberg school, McCubbin was a significant figure in the development of the Australian school of landscape and subject painting that emerged at the close of the nineteenth century. His work was directly influenced by the earlier traditions of Australian colonial art, late-Victorian subject pictures of a high moral tone. In later years McCubbin turned increasingly to landscape painting, portraying the lyrical and intimate beauty of the bush. The early influence of Corot gave way to that of J. M. W. Turner, as he turned from the quiet poetry of the shaded bush to the brilliant impressionistic effects of light and colour of his final manner.
McCubbin was a warm and gregarious personality and a gentle and intuitive teacher, who contributed greatly to the art world in Melbourne by his activities in various societies, through the conviviality of the McCubbin house which was always a focus for artists and students, and as a teacher of several generations of artists. He was a member of the Savage Club.
His 1887 painting “The Morning Train” above is a good example of McCubbin’s Heidelberg “Impressionistic” style. There is a painterly quality to the painting, with its layers of colour, scumbling of paint, light and dark, impasto and wash. The light and dark contrasts and the harsh morning light point out the difference between nature and machine, the bucolic and the metropolitan. McCubbin paints the train as it emerges between the cows and the farm sheds, its smoke blending with the clouds in the sky above, technology and progress overtaking and vanquishing nature. The colours are Australian and the landscape although recognisably that of a Downunder farm, still owes much to the French impressionists that the Heidelberg School was so influenced by.
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