Frederick McCubbin was a significant figure for the development of Australian Impressionism. Born in a working-class family, the painter made iconic pictures of his country's landscapes and rural life. In his paintings, he beautifully portrays the diversity and vivacity of the Australian vegetation. McCubbin is considered today one of the best artists from his country and in 1998 set a record for the selling of Australian artworks in auctions.
Frederick McCubbin was born on February, 1855, in the capital of Victoria, Melbourne. The Australian artist came from a large family with seven siblings. His father, Alexander McCubbin, was Scottish and married Anne McWilliams in 1848. They emigrated together to the country in 1852. After arriving, the family set up a bakery in Melbourne.
As they were immigrants, the seniors of the McCubbin family continuously held a nostalgic sentiment towards their homelands. This sentiment was accompanied by a pessimistic view of Australia, reflected in the monotonous feeling of young McCubbin's first paintings. This longing was drastically replaced with a newer view in his later work.
Anne McWilliams, who was passionate about music, encouraged her son's interest in art. She introduced him to a local pastor who lent him prints and magazines, enabling Frederick's first contact with art.
During this time, he mostly saw the work of British artists, especially engravings based on the paintings of J. M W. Turner, like a reproduction of Scene on the Loire, near the Coteaux de Mauves. The influence of the British painter's almost abstract representation is evident in the Australian painter's later work.
Before working as a full-time painter, McCubbin fulfilled many roles like working as a clerk, helping in his family's bakery, and even painting coaches. During this period, he was already studying at the Artisans' School of Design at Lygon Street. There he had his first formal education and studied mainly industrial design, the drawing of objects and ornaments, and some lessons with figure drawing.
McCubbin continued in search of a formal art education and enrolled in the National Gallery of Victoria. There, the drawing master was the artist Thomas Clark. Clark was a British painter who, back in England, was the master of painters such as Sir Edward Coley Burne-Jones. He encouraged students to sketch outdoors and gave them the freedom to pursue their interests. Later, many students referred to Thomas Clark as a fundamental character in their education.
McCubbin made many lasting friendships during this period. Among his colleagues were Alexander Colquhoun, Bertram Mackennal, Charles Douglas Richardson, Tom Roberts, and John Longstaff. Because of his interest in artistic and philosophical matters, McCubbin gained the nickname of "The Proff" from his peers.
In 1877, the painter switched from the School of Design to the School of Painting of the same institution. There he studied under Eugene von Guerard for two years. Frederick McCubbin read John Ruskin's Modern Painters and was fascinated by the relationship between art and nature.
In 1882, George Frederick Folingsby became the painting master of the National Gallery of Victoria. He made significant changes to the institution. For Folingsby, studying by observing plaster sculptures and the works of other artists was fruitless, emphasizing his methods on the importance of drawing.
His students later praised the painter for being a stimulating figure, and his motto was "keep it broad and simple." Under his instructions, the study of nudes was first implemented in the School of Painting.
It was in 1880 that the Australian painter sold his first artwork. Folingsby started to promote exhibits to promote the students' careers and granted them financial help. In 1883, McCubbin won first prize in the National Gallery's student exhibition, where he won several other awards throughout the decade.
During this period, he took on many responsibilities by inheriting the family business after his father's death. One of his older brothers was affected by apoplexy, and the other was traveling abroad, while Frederick had to assist his mother with the bakery. Simultaneously, his popularity only grew, and he was generating positive feedback from the critics.
During his time at the National Gallery, McCubbin developed a lasting friendship with Tom Roberts. Both had a penchant for painting outdoors, something that Folingsby argued as "foolish."
Along with Louis Abrahams, in 1885, the painters made expeditions to paint landscapes en plein air. They set up a camp for artists at a friend's property in the outskirts of their city. While at the site, the artists devoted themselves to capturing the lighting changes on the landscapes.
Painting fastly, they developed a new manner that was akin to the Impressionists. In one of these beach trips, they met the artist Arthur Streeton sketching, and he became part of the group.
In 1888, they were joined by the painter Charles Edward Condor. Working against the Australian tradition of big panoramic views, the group of artists focused on a less grandiose and more intimate perspective of the landscape genre. Among their techniques was the use of telescopes to get a detailed framing of trees and vegetation.
By 1889, the group decided to make a show at the Grosvenor Chamber called "9 by 5 Impression". The title came from the work's dimensions and material, with each painting of the series measuring 23 x 12.5 cm (9 by five inches) on cedar cigar-box lids or boards of the same size.
The art show was composed of a total of 183 works, five of which were by McCubbin. The show's influences ranged from Japanese ukiyo-e to James Abbott McNeill Whistler's work and employed mostly subtle colorwork, broad brushstrokes, and an atmospheric mood.
The group's exhibit had a polarizing reception. On the one hand, the sketchy quality and immediate effect of the paintings were praised. While on the other, many dismissed it as glorified preparatory studies. Even with this minor backlash, the artworks of the event sold well.
Later, the group of painters was named the Heidelberg School. While supporting their ideas and work, McCubbin didn't ascribe to all their artistic goals and felt deeply related to Tom Roberts' vision. While many of them eventually left for life overseas, McCubbin continued his work in Melbourne.
In 1888, Frederick McCubbin became a professor at the School of Design. He was appointed in 1886 and was hired two years later. The artist received £300 a year for the job, which gave him financial security and freedom to paint more.
A couple of years after entering the school, Folingsby told him that the drawing classes' approval raised significantly, and students gravitated towards his patient and kind way. About a year after McCubbin was appointed professor, he married Annie Moriarty, and they had seven children together. Their marriage was happy, and friends described their family as "lively."
In 1901, the artist moved to the small town of Mount Macedon with his family, where he produced some of his most inspired paintings. He concluded the masterpiece The Pioneers in 1904 while living in Melbourne's northwestern region, where he spent most of his life.
McCubbin traveled on rare occasions, like in 1907, when he visited England. He became the teacher of notable artists like Hilda Rix Nicholas and the photographer Ruth Miriam Holli while lecturing at the National Gallery of Victoria Art School in Melbourne. McCubbin's work aimed to reflect Australian rural life and nature.
By the end of the 1880s and beginning of the 1900s, he concluded a series of melancholic paintings, which became very popular. The artist began with Down on His Luck in 1889, then On the Wallaby Track, 1896, and the triptych The Pioneers, concluded in 1904, arguably the most famous of the series.
By the beginning of the First World War, McCubbin's health began to show signs of weakness. He passed away in December 1917 from a heart attack, five years after becoming one of the Australian Art Association's founding members.
Many Australian journals mourned his passing and said he was one of the most remarkable artists of his time, emphasizing his influence on the younger generation. He was remembered as an instigating teacher and major artist regarding landscape painting and expressive colorwork. In 1919, his son Alexander wrote a book about him called Frederick McCubbin: a Consideration.