Sunday, 19 June 2016


“I don’t believe in making pencil sketches and then painting landscape in your studio. You must be right under the sky.” - William Merritt Chase

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 Melbourne Savage Club.

The painting above is “Down on His Luck”, painted in 1889. It depicts a seemingly disheartened swagman, sitting by a campfire sadly brooding over his misfortune. “Swagman” an old Australian and New Zealand term describing an underclass of transient temporary workers, who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying their traditional swag (bedroll).

According to an 1889 review, “The [man’s] face tells of hardships, keen and blighting in their influence, but there is a nonchalant and slightly cynical expression, which proclaims the absence of all self-pity… McCubbin’s picture is thoroughly Australian in spirit.” The surrounding bush is painted in subdued tones, reflecting his sombre and contemplative mood. Down on his luck the man may be, but this is only a temporary setback and the very next morning the swagman will move on, to better luck.

The artist’s model was Louis Abrahams, a friend and successful tobacconist in Melbourne who earlier supplied the cigar box lids for the famous 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition. The scene was staged near the Box Hill artists’ camp outside Melbourne, but it is thought that McCubbin would have made additional studies of Abrahams under studio conditions. The painting was owned by William Fergusson until 1896, when it was purchased by the Art Gallery of Western Australia in Perth.


  1. Your narratives are always so thorough and informative. Puts me to shame!! I agree that "plein air" painting is the best. You might enjoy my posts from yesterday and today, which focuses on other unusual art pieces located in a terrific museum in the Twin Cities. Please visit!

  2. I appreciate the works of Frederick McCubbin and your posts are a wonderful tribute.

  3. Like the approach of this painter - he successfully puts the figure in a landscape. Learned a new word: swagman!