46. FREDERICK McCUBBIN
Rural labour with a nationalist ethos has been a dominant theme in Australian art and literature from the mid-nineteenth century on. The art of Frederick McCubbin was at the forefront of these investigations; his fascination with epic narrative paintings of white settlement in Australia produced many revered works including Down on his Luck, 1889 (AGWA), On the Wallaby Track, 1896 (AGNSW) and The Pioneer, 1904 (NGV).
The focus of McCubbin’ s art changed dramatically in the final decade of his life. While he continued to paint the bush, subjects of hardship, loneliness and the difficulties experienced by many outside the ‘big smoke’ were increasingly replaced by a more benign view of country life. His style of painting evolved, becoming freer in its brushwork and distinctive palette knife technique, and he introduced a greater range and richness of colour and tone.1
Some of the stylistic changes were anticipated in his Eaglemont landscape paintings of the 1890s, done under the tutelage of E. Phillips Fox (1865–1915) and Tudor St George Tucker (1862-1906). Arguably the greater impact on McCubbin came when he experienced at first-hand the work of artists abroad. In 1907 McCubbin travelled to England and Europe for his first and only time. The short time spent away was nothing short of a revelation. McCubbin marvelled at the work of the Impressionists in Paris and praised the luminosity of English artist J.M.W. Turner (1775-1851) with his ‘tender visions of light and air’.2 He admired John Constable (1776-1837) and his singular attachment to a particular place and integrated this approach into his own work along with the rural subject matter of the French Barbizon School of painters.
The subject depicted in Spring Morning 1914, is a rural worker at Mount Macedon close by to where the McCubbin family had purchased a cottage in 1901. This was where he was to spend a great deal of time, and in naming the new summer home ‘Fontainebleau’, McCubbin was paying homage to the forest outside Paris where nineteenth century Barbizon artists including Jean-Baptiste Camille Corot (1796-1875) and Jean-François Millet (1814-75) developed their realist techniques and painted in the open air. Like his French forebears, McCubbin frequently returned to the same area to paint favourite vistas and motifs, under different conditions or at alternate times of the day.
McCubbin recounted taking an early morning walk in the summer of 1910. He wrote excitedly to his friend Tom Roberts that ‘I think I have just got a ripping subject to paint morning sunlight – Hauling rails for a fence – a regular Millet...’3 The resulting painting, Hauling Rails for a Fence, Mount Macedon, 1910, (NGA) depicts two men struggling to pull a barrow of wood up the hill. As Mary Eagle points out, the site of the painting is near his home on the north side of the mountain looking over the plains toward the township of Lancefield and the distant Cobaw Ranges. This was an area that McCubbin particularly enjoyed. His daughter Kathleen Mangan recalled how McCubbin loved the silver-grey grove of wattle trees that appear in his paintings, as well as the long grass and noisy bullfrogs that croaked nearby.4
McCubbin created two new works using the same vista in 1914, including Spring Morning and a smaller oil sketch entitled Bush Camp, from the collection of the NGV. As its title suggests, Spring Morning creates a clear sense of early morning as well as the nature of country work. The horizon sky is still and retains its morning pink glow, the undergrowth is fresh and crisp and deep shadows are cast from the rising sun.
McCubbin’s concern for poetic evocations of nature rather than literal naturalistic forms is ably demonstrated in Spring Morning by its careful pictorial construction, notably in the use of the motif of a diagonally leaning tree. One of McCubbin's favourite paintings was Camille Corot’s The Bent Tree (L’arbre Penché), c.1855-60, which had been purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1907. The same motif was used regularly by McCubbin. In combination with the more rigidly upright trees to the left, the leaning tree was a pictorial device that served to frame the composition and create an enclosed and intimate space with distant background views.
McCubbin creates an image of domesticity and a well-settled landscape where simple though painstaking toil is shown to engender a harmonious relationship between nature and man. The man grubbing the ground in Spring Morning resembles the bending man in Millet’s famous painting Man with a Hoe, 1860-62 (J. Paul Getty Museum, Los Angeles), and is probably modelled on McCubbin’s son Louis. The worker clears away new growth and bracken that obscures a well-worn path. Sunlight filters through the trees and animates the scene while the lively surface qualities and texture of the painting are created through a variety of techniques including the use of a palette knife as well as a brush.
As has been convincingly argued elsewhere by David Hansen, Spring Morning is likely to have been a work exhibited in June 1914 at the second exhibition of the Australian Art Association. McCubbin had been elected first President of the breakaway AAA in 1913 and was integral to its critical success as an organisation which promulgated Australian art not as a precise or ‘mechanical reproduction of nature’ but ‘with works which were ‘virile in thought and expressed in romantic language’. The Argus art critic found these qualities in McCubbin’s Flood Waters and The Old Ship, Williamstown.5 Similarly, a report on the composition of the 1914 exhibition, in which Spring Morning was shown, stated that McCubbin was represented with ‘six clever landscapes [all] strongly dealt with’.6
Increasing worldwide unrest and the onset of the first World War impacted heavily upon Frederick McCubbin and his family. His son Hugh was severely wounded at the Gallipoli landing of April 1915, while McCubbin received news that his brother James was lost at sea with the sinking of his ship in May. These events took McCubbin’s attention away from painting; however, he continued to ruminate upon art practice and its place within the national conscience. As he perceptively noted in 1916: ‘If Art is of any value to the world at all it is as a precious document of the love and admiration of the workers for that which they express and it is natural in so far as it sympathises with the life and beauty of the country it belongs...’ 7
Spring Morning 1914, is a fine example of McCubbin’s late work and his experimentation with luxuriant colour, painterly texture and sparkling light and atmospheric effects. His intention was to portray an intimate scene of the bush at Macedon and a form of Australian country life that he knew well and had grown to love. Evidently, the painting did not stay in Australia for very long. It was purchased in the year of its creation by Violet Moore-Dillon. She was in Melbourne en route with her daughter as part of a world tour. The painting subsequently passed down through their family, before being returned to Australia from England in 2005.
1. Gray, A., McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907-17, National Gallery of Australia, 2009
2. Frederick McCubbin to Annie McCubbin, 19 July 1907, McCubbin Papers, State Library of Victoria
3. Frederick McCubbin to Tom Roberts, Tom Roberts Letters, Mitchell Library, quoted in Mary Eagle, ‘Hauling rails for a fence’, McCubbin: Last Impressions, National Gallery of Australia, 2009
4. Mangan, K., quoted in Andrew Mackenzie, Frederick McCubbin 1955-1917 ‘The Prof’ and his Art, Mannagum Press, 1990, p.188
5. The Argus, 7 May 1913, p.6
6. The Argus, 5 June 1914, p.5
7. McCubbin, F., ‘Some Remarks on Australian Art’ in The art of Frederick McCubbin, Lothian Press, Melbourne, 1916, no pag.
Rodney James BA (Hons), MA