Frederick McCubbin (1855 – 1917)

Considered to be a central figure behind the success of the Heidelberg School, perhaps one of the most important periods in the history of Australian art, Frederick McCubbin became renowned for his painted depictions, most notably of bush life. Today many of his images have become iconic for the way they effectively portray the struggles and extremities of early Australian bush living.

Born in Melbourne in 1855, McCubbin received his formal art training from classes attended at the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Design under the tuition of Eugene von Gerard. Studying art and design while working for the family’s bakery business, he became acquainted with fellow Heidelberg artist, Tom Roberts. After studying also at the Victorian Academy of Arts, McCubbin frequently exhibited his works in the establishment between 1879 and 1882 and sold his first painting in 1880.

As his work began to draw considerable interest from audiences and contemporaries, McCubbin went on to prove his success by winning a number of prizes from the National Gallery, including a 30-pound first prize in 1883 in their annual student exhibition. Having become quite well-established in art circles by the mid-1880s, McCubbin began to direct his interest from creating portraits and coastal scenes to works encapsulating life in the Australian bush. It was these works that ultimately led the artist to achieve greater fame and recognition, with his bush scenes the work for which he is best remembered.

Being granted the position of Master of the School of Design at the National Gallery in 1888, McCubbin demonstrated his influence by teaching a number of students who themselves went on to become prominent figureheads in the Australian art world. Such students included Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.

McCubbin travelled to England in 1907 where, along with the influence of J.M.W Turner, he gathered a lot of inspiration to create his well-known works. Continuing to paint through the first two decades of the 20th century, McCubbin produced began his most famous work, The Pioneers in 1904 and it was completed two years later. Telling the story of the so-called “selectors” who inhabited much of Australia’s farmland in the late 19th Century, the iconic tripych is now considered a great Australian masterpiece for the way it captures the essence of The Heidelberg School’s teachings and the feeling of extreme isolation felt by many of Australia’s farming settlers.

Another image of McCubbin which has become significant is the painting, Down on his luck. Encapsulating a strong feeling of loneliness, it shows a solemn-looking man against an Australian landscape with his head resting against his arm, looking melancholy while stoking a fire with a stick. Expressing great emotion, the image instantly became recognised as quintessentially Australian. Through his art, McCubbin showed his admiration for the Australian bush, and those who led a lonely, isolated life within it for the sake of their labour.

McCubbin was later described by critics to have created an “engulfing, claustrophobic landscape by barely suggesting any horizon and compressing midground and background.” As a result of this, his bush characters became the heroes of his work.

After being hindered by failing health at the start of the First World War, Frederick McCubbin died in 1917.

In 1998 the artist’s painting Bush Idyll (1893) was sold for $2,312,500, a record price for any Australian painter. Today McCubbin’s work is represented in all of Australia’s major State Galleries.

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