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“The Pioneer” by Frederick McCubbin

Frederick McCubbin - The pioneer

“The Pioneer” by Frederick McCubbin

“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?

This triptych is a masterpiece of Australian art. It was produced three years after Federation and from one perspective was a display of nationalistic pride in the Australian pioneer legacy and the future prosperity of the city in the background. The narrative, however, is ambiguous if the focus is on the woman’s sad expression and body language. This is a theme that can also be seen in another Frederick McCubbin painting called “On the Wallaby Track” as seen below.

Frederick McCubbin - On the wallaby track - Google Art Project

“On the Wallaby Track” by Frederick McCubbin

It is interesting to note that initially there were no buyers for “The Pioneer” until a friend suggested that the town in the last panel be made to look like the city of Melbourne. McCubbin painted in the view of Melbourne and the painting soon sold.

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 a number of 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 McCubbin died in 1917 from a heart attack.

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.


  • How easy is it to see the story in this painting?
  • Why are so many of our heroes the underdog?
  • How does Australian Impressionism compare to other famous impressionist art of the 19th century?
  • Is Plein-air painting one of the most important movements in western art in the nineteenth century?

Explore Australian Art

The Pioneer

  • Title:              The Pioneer
  • Artist:            Frederick McCubbin
  • Date                1904
  • Medium         Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:225 x 295.7 cm
  • Museum:       National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne

Frederick McCubbin

  • Artist:           Frederick McCubbin
  • Born:             1855 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • Died               1917 (aged 62) – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
  • Major Paintings:


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


Photo Credit: Frederick McCubbin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons  2) Frederick McCubbin [Public domain], via Wikimedia Commons