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Frederick McCubbin

Frederick McCubbin

Frederick McCubbin

Frederick McCubbin (1855 – 1917) was an Australian artist and prominent member of the Heidelberg School art movement, also known as Australian Impressionism. McCubbin was born in Melbourne, Australia and 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, where he met Tom Roberts and studied under Eugene von Guerard. He also studied at the Victorian Academy of the Arts and sold his first painting in 1880 at the age of twenty-five.

McCubbin’s work began to attract attention, and he won several prizes from the National Gallery. By the mid-1880s he concentrated more on painting the Australian bush, the works for which he became notable. In 1888, he became instructor and master of the School of Design at the National Gallery, where he taught many students who themselves became prominent Australian artists, including Charles Conder and Arthur Streeton.

In 1901 McCubbin and his family moved to Mount Macedon, it was at Macedon with its surrounding bush, that inspired him to experiment with the light and its effects on colour in nature. It was in this setting that he painted The Pioneer, among many other bush works. McCubbin continued to paint, though, by the beginning of World War I, his health began to fail, and he died in 1917 from a heart attack.

A Tour of Frederick McCubbin’s Art

  • The Pioneer
    • “The Pioneer” by Frederick McCubbin was painted in 1904 as a triptych depicting the story of a settler family making a living in the Australian bush. The left panel shows the settler and his wife settling on what was called by the government as their “selection”. “Selection” referred to “free selection before survey” of crown land in some Australian colonies as part of legislation introduced in the 1860s. In the middle of the bush is the wagon with the man starting a campfire, and in the foreground, the woman is deep in thought.In the centre panel, the passage of time is indicated by the young child in the woman’s arms. The family home can be seen in the centre through a clearing in the trees. The clearing shows where the trees have been cleared to create pasture and tillable land. The right panel show time has moved on with a city is visible in the background. A young man is kneeling and clearing a grave. Is the young man kneeling the young boy from the centre panel, clearing the grave site? Museum: National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne
  • Child in The Bush
    • “Child in The Bush” by Frederick McCubbin is a painting that revisited a central theme in McCubbin’s work which focused on narratives of vulnerable children stranded in the Australian Bush. This painting depicts a girl wandering through the bush carrying a basket, collecting wildflowers or berries. Her white dress stands out in her surrounds. The landscape in this painting was close to McCubbin’s residence at Mount Macedon in Victoria, Australia and the child in the image was the artist’s youngest daughter. McCubbin made skilful use of a palette knife to apply flecks of green, blue and tan, pink and violet colours. McCubbin was an Australian painter and prominent member of the Heidelberg School art movement, also known as Australian Impressionism. Museum: National Gallery of Australia
  • Down on his Luck
    • “Down on his Luck” by Frederick McCubbin depicts a disheartened swagman or unlucky gold prospector, sitting by a campfire brooding over his luck. McCubbin’s iconic paintings of romanticised rural and pioneer life are as famous today as they were with his audiences in the 1900s. According to an 1889 review: “The 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, also reflecting the sombre and contemplative mood. The scene was located near the Box Hill artists’ camp outside Melbourne. Note the prominent eucalyptus plant placed prominently in the foreground and painted in bold detail, reflecting McCubbin’s love of the Australian bush. One can imagine the campfire crackles while birds and cicadas call from the trees. Museum: Art Gallery of Western Australia

Australian Impressionism

During the 1870s and 1880s, European artists immigrated to Australia and brought their experience of “plein–air” movement, to Australia. Through their work and teaching, they made significant contributions to the development of Impressionism in Australia. Drawing on naturalist and impressionist ideas, they sought to capture Australian life, the bush, and the sunlight of the country.

In French Impressionism, colours were painted with more explosive energy and with more pure primary and secondary tones for complementary contrasts. Australian Impressionists tended to show Australian tones of dry soil, eucalypt woods and sand, with the dabbling of warm and cold colours.

Australian Impressionism is notable for its compositions of Australia’s cultural heritage. During the period after Australia’s Federation in 1901, Australian nationalism and Australian Impressionists provided works that have become icons of a passing Australia.

Frederick McCubbin


  • How does Australian Impressionism compare to other famous impressionist art of the 19th century?
  • Is Plein-air painting one of the most critical movements in western art in the nineteenth century?

Explore Australian Art


“All our best heroes are losers.”
– Richard Glover


Photo Credit: Frederick McCubbin [Public domain]