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Why I Chose This Artist

The “Heidelberg School” produced some of Australia’ greatest and best known artists at the end of the 19th Century. The most famous of these are, arguably, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton.

However, my favourite of all these “Australian Impressionists” would have to be Frederick (The Prof) McCubbin, who, with Roberts was co-founder of the movement and the actual teacher and mentor to the likes of Streeton and Conder.

Frederick McCubbin’s most well known paintings would be: The Pioneer (a triptych), On the Wallaby Track, The Letter, and Down on His Luck.

Frederick McCubbin (25 February 1855 – 20 December 1917) was an Australian painter who was prominent in the Heidelberg School, one of the most important periods in Australia’s visual arts history.

Frederick was born in Melbourne, the third of eight children of Alexander and Ann McCubbin. As an adult worked for a time as solicitor’s clerk, a coach painter and in his family’s bakery business while studying art at the National Gallery of Victoria’s School of Design. Here he met Tom Roberts (also to become one of Australia’s most famous painters) while both studied under Eugene von Guerard.

He also studied at the Victorian Academy of the Arts and exhibited there in 1876 and again from 1879 to 1882, selling his first painting View Near Fisherman’s Bend in 1880. During this period his father passed away, and the responsibility for running the family’s bakery business fell on Frederick.

Despite this extra responsibility, McCubbin’s work began to attract considerable attention and won a number of prizes from the National Gallery, including a first prize in the first annual Gallery students’ exhibition, for best studies in colour and drawing. By the mid-1880s he concentrated more on painting the Australian bush, the works for which he became most noted.

In 1888, he became instructor and master of the School of Design at the National Gallery. In this position he taught a number of students who themselves became prominent Australian artists.

McCubbin married Annie Moriarty in 1889 and they had seven children. Their son Louis McCubbin became an artist and director of the Art Gallery of South Australia from 1936–1950, and a grandson, Charles, also became an artist

The Heidelberg School

The Heidelberg School was an Australian art movement of the late 19th century. The movement later was to become also known as “Australian Impressionism”.

From 1885, Frederick McCubbin and Tom Roberts went on painting trips, camping at a farm at Box Hill, at Mentone on Port Phillip Bay and later in the Heidelberg area. Here they were joined by fellow artists Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and Walter Withers

In 1891 an art critic named Sidney Dickinson was reviewing the works of local artists Streeton and Withers. Dickinson noted that these artists, along with others who painted en plein air in the Heidelberg area, could be called the “Heidelberg School”. Since that time, the term has taken on a wider meaning covering all Melbourne and Sydney artists of the late 19th century inspired by the European Impressionist movement. Their paintings capture Australian life, the bush, and the harsh sunlight and deep shadows that typifies this country.

McCubbin (nicknamed ‘The Prof’ because of his philosophizing), was a major figure in the development of this iconic Australian school of landscape and subject painting that emerged at the close of the nineteenth century. His paintings always extolled the virtues and unheralded bravery of the pioneers and early settlers.

The Later Years

Frederick McCubbin was said to have a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He was kindly, sincere and single-minded in his outlook; he was energetic and a intelligent man, who liked to make others think and laugh; he was an avid and discriminating reader, particularly of biographies and classic fiction; he enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics.

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. Of the works that he saw in London, he was very impressed with the landscapes of J.M.W.Turner, and the influence of Turner was to manifest itself in many of his later works. From 1907 to 1917 McCubbin produced his most brilliant works, ones which deeply expressed his love of the Australian landscape.

In May 1915, Frederick received a telegram notifying him that his brother, James, a purser on the Lusitania, was lost at sea with the sinking of his ship on 7 May. McCubbin, received a telegram on the same day, that informed him that his son, Hugh, was wounded at Gallipoli. These two items of bad news affected McCubbin greatly, and he suffered what he referred to as ‘A bit of a breakdown’. He produced few large works after this time, and lost much of his inspiration for painting.

Soon after this his health began to decline and he was frequently suffering severe asthma attacks. It was thought that this asthma, and a bout of pneumonia late in 1917, weakened his heart, and he died aged 62, from a heart attack on 20 December 1917, at his home at 42 Kensington Road, South Yarra.

The Missing Masterpiece

Home Again, painted in 1884 by Frederick McCubbin, is the major painting of the artist’s early work. Its whereabouts were unknown until it in 1981 it was discovered to be in the possession of the Bickley family, who had owned it since shortly after it was painted. Both the McCubbin and Bickley families, were bakers and friends, and had travelled on the same ship from England to Melbourne.

Home Again, shows a woman responsible for her family’s livelihood, and is the first of McCubbin’s subject paintings, such as A Bush Burial (1890), On the Wallaby Track (1896), and The Pioneer (1904), that highlight the importance of pioneering women.

Painting Sold for Australian Record

In 1998 Frederick McCubbin’s painting Bush Idyll (1893) was sold for over A$2 million.

Bush Idyll is a major narrative work by McCubbin, which shows the strong influence of the ‘Naturalists’ on his work. It was painted in 1893 in the bush at Blackburn, Victoria where McCubbin lived for 3 years. He had an open air studio adjacent to his home near the Blackburn Lake. in the far right of the work there is a glimpse of cattle grazing at the side of the lake.

One day McCubbin asked a local girl, Mary Cobb, to put on her “Sunday best” to model for him. He painted her with a young boy of similar age, in working clothes and playing a tin whistle, as they lay on the ground near the lake.

The painting was first purchased in 1899 for 35 pounds by McCubbin’s friend and fellow artist Louis Abrahams. Sir Hugh D. MacIntosh subsequently bought it for 262 pounds and 10 shillings in 1919 and took it to England where it was sold to a private collector and vanished from public view for nearly 60 years.

Before his death the wealthy owner bequeathed it to a farmer, who having no idea of the painting’s value or importance took it to a Fine Art Gallery in Cambridge, from where it was purchased in 1984 by David Waterhouse for GB 150,000 pounds.

In 1998 Bush Idyll sold at auction for $2,312,500, a record price for any Australian painter. The painting is now in the U.S.A. and is considered to be one of the finest Australian works of art.


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