In At the falling of the year 1886, Frederick McCubbin lovingly depicted a small segment of a woodland. Two baby magpies fly among the trees. He carefully delineated the bark and leaves of the slender eucalypt saplings as well as the grasses and twigs in the foreground. We feel as if we are in the midst of this intimate scene, listening to the soft rustling of the bush. McCubbin was a prominent Australian Impressionist and At the falling of the year comes from a key period in his oeuvre. The title derives from a line in Adam Lindsay Gordon’s poem ‘A song of autumn’, where the poet wrote:
Where shall we go for our garlands glad
At the falling of the year,
When the burnt–up banks are yellow and sad,
When the boughs are yellow and sere?
McCubbin evoked this season through his use of yellow and red tones, and a fading evening light. He most likely painted it at Houston’s farm, Box Hill, on the outskirts of Melbourne. From 1885 to 1886, McCubbin was working alongside Tom Roberts at the artists’ camp at Box Hill (near Heidelberg). It was an ideal place to work because it allowed them easy access to the bush during the weekends and was a short train journey from Melbourne, where they worked during the week. They were soon joined by other artists, including Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and Jane Sutherland. This painting shows the advances that McCubbin and Roberts made in Australian landscape painting. Telescoping in on a small segment of the bush, their paintings were radically different in composition and technique from the wide panoramic views of earlier Australian landscape painters. In contrast to the work of previous artists, they depicted treescapes in which the sky is nearly absent and the eucalypts are viewed in close focus. In these works, they sought an intimate, naturalistic approach to the bush, capturing the play of light and shade in the landscape. During 1886, both McCubbin and Roberts painted outdoors in front of the motif, using a limited range of colours (predominantly greens and browns). In its freshness and immediacy, close viewpoint and tonal palette, McCubbin’s At the falling of the year also resembles works that Roberts painted around this time, such as A Sunday afternoon c 1886 and A summer morning’s tiff 1886. McCubbin, however, generally presented his scenes from an even more intimate viewpoint than Roberts. The image of the two tall eucalypt saplings at the right of At the falling of the year is also a feature of several of McCubbin’s works at this time. He painted this work in the same year as his seminal Lost 1886, for which it could be considered a study—as it could for other significant works of this period such as Gathering mistletoe 1886. Although small, McCubbin saw At the falling of the year as a work in its own right and exhibited it in the First annual exhibition of the Australian Artists’ Association at Buxton’s Galleries in Melbourne on 7 September 1886, three years before the famous The 9 by 5 impression exhibition of oil sketches by McCubbin, Roberts, Streeton and Conder was shown at this same venue. In 1886, McCubbin was appointed drawing master of the school of design at the National Gallery School in Melbourne—a position he held for the rest of his life. Five years later, in September 1891, Roberts and Streeton moved from Melbourne to New South Wales, where they painted at Sirius Cove on Sydney Harbour and elsewhere in New South Wales. They subsequently travelled overseas. McCubbin remained in Melbourne, crafting his own art out of the well–known and much–loved places around him. In these works, he showed the breadth of his vision and his deep understanding of nature, capturing sparkling sensations of light and atmosphere.
Head of Australian Art
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010