“Down on his Luck” by Frederick McCubbin
“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.
A swagman was a transient labourer who travelled by foot from farm to farm carrying his belongings in a swag or bedroll. The term originated in Australia in the 19th-century. Swagmen were particularly common in Australia during times of economic uncertainty, such as the 1890s and the Great Depression of the 1930s. Many unemployed men travelled the rural areas of Australia on foot, their few meagre possessions rolled up and carried in their swag. Typically, they would seek work in farms and towns they travelled through, and in many cases, the farmers would provide food and shelter in return for some menial task.
The figure of the “jolly swagman”, represented most famously in Banjo Paterson’s bush poem “Waltzing Matilda”, became a folk hero in 19th-century Australia, and is still seen today as a symbol of anti-authoritarian values that Australians considered to be part of the national character.
“Once a jolly swagman camped by a billabong
Under the shade of a coolibah tree,
And he sang as he watched and waited till his “Billy” boiled,
“You’ll come a-waltzing Matilda, with me.”
“Waltzing Matilda” is Australia’s best-known bush ballad. The song narrates the story of an itinerant worker, or “swagman”, making a drink of billy tea at a bush camp and capturing a stray jumbuck (ram) to eat. When the jumbuck’s owner, a squatter (landowner), and policemen pursue the swagman for theft, he declares “You’ll never catch me alive!” and commits suicide by drowning himself in a nearby billabong (watering hole), after which his ghost haunts the site.
The original lyrics were written in 1895 and were first published as sheet music in 1903. Extensive folklore surrounds the song and the process of its creation. There are more recordings of “Waltzing Matilda” than any other Australian song on the record.
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 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 Child in the Bush, among many other bush works.
- Why are anti-authoritarian values such a significant part of the Australian national character?
Explore the Art Gallery of Western Australia
- Adam by Auguste Rodin
- “Down on his Luck” by Frederick McCubbin
- “Breaking the News” by John Longstaff
Down on his Luck
- 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
- Artist: Frederick McCubbin
- Born: 1855 – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
- Died 1917 (aged 62) – Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
- Major Paintings:
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“The bigger the hat, the smaller the property.”
– Australian Proverb
Photo Credit: GM