The Joy of Museums

Finding Beauty & Meaning in Museums

“Down on his Luck” by Frederick McCubbin

Art Gallery of Western Australia - Joy of Museums -

“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 popular 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.

“Down on his luck” is one of the first of a series of large-scale figure paintings by McCubbin, inspired by Australia’s early history. The clothing, billy, campfire and rolled up blanket portrayed in the painting were typical of workers in the bush. This image of the prospector or swagman or bush worker offered a certain nobility. Independent of urban demands, breathing the air of the bush and free to make his own decisions. “Down on his luck” but with the opportunity that tomorrow will bring better luck.

Essential Facts:

  • Title:                      Down on his Luck
  • Artist:                    Frederick McCubbin
  • Year:                      1889
  • Place of Origin:   Australia
  • Material:              Oil on canvas
  • Dimensions:        114.5 cm × 152.8 cm (45.1 in × 60.2 in)
  • Museum:              Art Gallery of Western Australia

Essential Facts about the Artist:

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


” Some mistakes are too much fun to only make once.” Australian Proverb



Photo Credit: By GordonMakryllos (Own work) [CC BY-SA 4.0 (], via Wikimedia Commons