The most poetic of McCubbin’s late paintings, Afterglow returns in composition and mood to the inspiration of some earlier works. Some of these landscapes had already shown the influence of Camille Corot, but now there was a very different and very modern application of animated broken colour. Broad palette-knife flecks of reds, indigoes and olives suggest the brown trees; the foreground is rendered with boldlyapplied pinks and greens. McCubbin had admired Corot’s work, through reproductions, long before the National Gallery of Victoria bought that artist’s The bent tree (see p 47) with great fanfare and expense in 1907. One of McCubbin’s scrapbooks includes black-and-white illustrations of Corot’s paintings, among which is The bath of Diana now held by the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Bordeaux. The composition makes an interesting comparison with Afterglow—both have a transparent coulisse of trees above a water’s edge and bathers, though McCubbin has only a single bather entering the water while three companions remain naked on the grass.
Further, in a 1906 article on Corot in the London magazine, the Studio, featured among the black-and-white illustrations is Corot’s The bathers, depicting female figures in a foreground pool. McCubbin could not have failed to see this painting of similar subject and composition. His Afterglow, originally exhibited in winter 1912 as ‘Summer evening’, also displays the romantic glow of the great seventeenth-century Roman landscape painter Claude Lorrain; the feathery foliage with small figures further recalls Antoine Watteau’s eighteenth-century landscape idylls. Another old-masterly reference is the pose of the figure lowering herself into the water; it is the same as the right-hand nude in Titian’s Pastoral concert c 1510, one of the most celebrated paintings in the Louvre. ‘Proff’ McCubbin could not have missed it on his visit to Paris in 1907, and would have already known about this great masterpiece; of all the Australian impressionists he was the one most aware of the old masters and art history.
Although the elegiac Afterglow absorbs much from the traditional conventions of European landscape painting, it nonetheless depicts a specific place. The site of the pool is on ‘Ard Choille’, a large hill station established by William MacGregor at Mount Macedon near Melbourne. It was immediately above McCubbin’s own retreat (which he’d bought in 1901 and named ‘Fontainebleau’, after the forest near Paris where Corot had painted, and to which McCubbin made a pilgrimage during his overseas trip in 1907). The pond at ‘Ard Choille’ is the highest and largest of seven small lakes, the others forming an irrigation system for extensive landscaping on the north face of Mount Macedon. This pond was named Lake Strathmore and survives, though MacGregor’s house does not. Natural bush, seen in the painting, still surrounds much of ‘Ard Choille’ and Lake Strathmore. The view looks north to the Great Dividing Range, its Cobaw Range section barely visible through gum trees and the haze of a tremulous, fading sky.
McCubbin sometimes brought his National Gallery art school students from Melbourne to ‘Fontainebleau’. He certainly did so in the summer of 1912, when he painted Afterglow there. Lake Strathmore was also used for swimming and boating and would have been the inspiration for painting bathers in this Arcadian setting. But McCubbin had composed female nudes in landscapes before, and would do so again. His The bathers, painted in 1906, was even more Corotesque; it was illustrated in his 1916 monograph but is now unfortunately lost. There were many female nudes in the Summer idyll which McCubbin exhibited in 1910, but he later painted out the figures and this work is now given the title Oliver’s Hill, Frankston (cat 35). In 1914 he again painted female bathers in his best-known late work, Golden sunlight (cat 62).
McCubbin made late oil sketches of nudes, most probably during life classes at the National Gallery’s school. These small oils on board, of which Nude study (cat 34 ) is an example, were the likely source for the small figures in these large canvases; certainly nude female models or students would not have posed for him outdoors in the landscape itself.
Afterglow had not been shown at the National Gallery of Australia for nearly 20 years until the Gallery’s Conservation Department completed extensive cleaning and restoration in late 2005. Removal of clumsy patches, old repaints, and hardened and darkened household varnish, restored this faded masterpiece to its former glory. X-ray photographs taken during the conservation process reveal that the landscape was painted over a female portrait facing left, in vertical format, probably executed about a decade earlier. A newly made period frame, in the Thallon frame-maker’s style much used by McCubbin, now appropriately surrounds Afterglow.
Gray & Radford, McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907–17, National Gallery of Australia, 2009
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010