The National Gallery of Australia’s recent acquisition Violet and gold 1911 is a brilliant light-filled work. We can see here how the artist focussed on light and colour rather than subject. In 2001, Ron Radford, then director of the Art Gallery of South Australia, wrote about this work as being ‘one of McCubbin’s most beautiful Macedon paintings’, remarking that ‘there is no narrative, only poetry’.1
Does this surprise you? Do you think of Frederick McCubbin as one of the great Australian Impressionists, alongside Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder? Do you consider him to be an artist who had his heyday in the 1890s, painting images of the bush extolling the life of pioneers and the sadness of lost children? Do you regard him as playing a major role in the development of the Australian landscape, painting works that are part of the fabric of Australian culture? All of this is certainly true.
But do you also believe that his best days were over by the 20th century, and that he carried on as the ‘good old Proff’, philosophising and teaching others? If so, you need to think again. Of course McCubbin was one of the great Australian Impressionists. However, as Australia became a federation and began to move into modern times, McCubbin just got better and better. While Roberts, Streeton and Conder did their best works in the 1880s and 1890s, McCubbin came into his own in the 20th century, particularly after his first and only trip to Europe, in 1907, when he spent five months abroad. During this visit he was inspired by the works of JMW Turner and Claude Monet, especially the late paintings of Turner, which were being shown for the first time at the Tate Gallery in London.2 McCubbin observed, ‘as Monet says, “Light is the chief sitter everywhere”.’3Violet and gold amply demonstrates this.
In this work, McCubbin created an image of cattle drinking at a pool surrounded by tall trees; but, more than that, he depicted a beam of light reaching through the trees and onto the cattle. Light glows through the trees. As Radford has observed: ‘Rays of dappled light flickering through the dark trees animate the surface of the painting with flecks of colour’.4 Indeed, the way he captured the light radiating through the trees and across the ground is miraculous.
Violet and gold is an example of how, during the early years of the 20th century, McCubbin changed his approach and began to paint pure images, focussing on nature, on light, the time of day and the season. He painted flickering light, hazed light, dazzling light—light in all its manifestations. As McCubbin wrote of Turner, he ‘realized the quality of light … no theatrical effect but mist and cloud and sea and land drenched in light … They glow with a tender brilliancy’.5
McCubbin also began to depict modern life and modern times: wharfs, factories and city streets. He started to portray his subjects using pure colour applied with a palette knife—he used paint in a most advanced and abstracted fashion, creating painterly surfaces. If you stand closely to Violet and gold (or look at the detail opposite), you will see what I mean. You will find portions of the picture in which McCubbin has almost splattered his paint over the coarse canvas. He animated the surface of the painting with flecks of colour. His free handling of paint and his layering of pure colours are remarkable.
McCubbin gave Violet and gold an abstract, poetic title—possibly a result of having looked at and admired James McNeill Whistler’s work in London in 1907.Coming of Spring, Afterglow (both National Gallery of Australia), Winter’s morning and Autumn morning (both National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne), emphasising the time of year or time of day, this is one of only a few works to which he gave a colour title.
Violet and gold was painted about one kilometre from McCubbin’s country retreat, Fontainebleau, at Mount Macedon, on the nearby property of Ard Chielle. McCubbin found this area inspirational and painted many images there that capture his interest in atmospheric effects. They derive from his deep knowledge and love of the place and his lived experience. Violet and gold is one of the most painterly and evocative of these works—full of pastoral charm and end–of–day ease.
The area below Mount Macedon where McCubbin painted Violet and gold was low–lying and swampy and full of tall gum trees. McCubbin was fascinated by the Australian eucalypt, and suggested that other Australian artists did not appreciate its qualities. He wrote:
The subtle way in which it responds to varying effects of light and shadow was lost on them … the varieties in shades and colours, the Gum tree presented, from the violet grey tints of the stringy bark to the transparent sheen of the White Gum, upon which colours distort and change in a hundred subtle ways as they would upon a mirror. Yet our trees and our faded flora are such component parts of our Australian landscape.7
Some of McCubbin’s late works are among Australia’s finest Federation landscapes. ‘They glow with a tender brilliancy’ (as McCubbin described the work of Turner).8 The shimmering, dazzling light in Violet and gold shows how much McCubbin learnt from Turner. It has a rich painterly surface – which reflects the subtle harmonies of the Australian bush. And, as Turner often did, McCubbin makes the small shining orb of the sun the central, dominating force of the composition.
Among McCubbin’s late works are two other Macedon paintings in the Gallery’s collection, Hauling rails for a fence, Mount Macedon 1910, which McCubbin painted one year before Violet and gold, and Afterglow 1912, painted one year afterwards. In comparing these works we can see that Violet and gold is the more daring and adventurous work. Whereas Violet and gold is a long, narrow canvas, the other two works are more rectangular. And where in Violet and gold McCubbin focused on a thicket of trees, emphasising the denseness of the bush and hardly showing any sky, in both Hauling rails for a fence and Afterglow he adopted a more traditional composition, placing a clump of trees on one side and open sky on the other. In Violet and gold McCubbin used the reflections in the pool to add to the internality of the work—with the reflections an illusionist echo of the trees. In all three paintings he created dynamic compositions by contrasting the strong verticals of the tree trunks with diagonal—in Hauling rails for a fence and Afterglow, the diagonals are essentially those of the hillside, but in Violet and gold he used a more complex composition with the diagonal fall of the shaft of light coming down across the picture towards the right, contrasted with the dark shape of a jagged branch rising diagonally from the left.
The three paintings also show McCubbin’s interest in different times of day: Violet and gold capturing a low sun shining through an early morning mist, Hauling rails for a fence portraying the middle of the day and Afterglow depicting the rosy afterglow of the setting sun. McCubbin did not just vary his compositions in painting these three subjects, but also his range of colours and his brush (or palette knife) strokes – each used to create a different atmospheric effect. McCubbin played with the use of figures in each of the paintings, from the workers in Hauling rails for a fence to the animals in Violet and gold and to the classical nudes of Afterglow. However, the figures are not there to create a story so much as to give a sense of space to the composition. Although Violet and gold becomes flatter if we were to take out the cattle, it also becomes more obviously an adventurous paint–laden picture surface, showing nature experienced from within.
The generous support of Ashley Dawson-Damer and John Wylie and Myriam Wylie has made possible this major purchase of Violet and gold for the Gallery’s 25th anniversary year. They have helped us represent more strongly one of Australia’s most important artists at the turn of the century and, in doing so, have provided a great service to the Australian public.
Head of Australian Art
The National Gallery of Australia will be holding an exhibition from 2 August to 27 November 2009 of Frederick McCubbin’s later paintings. Anne Gray would welcome being contacted by owners of works by McCubbin painted after 1907.
1. Ron Radford, Our country: Australian Federation landscapes 1900–1914, exhibition catalogue, Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide, 2001, p 84.
2. McCubbin did know of Turner’s work before visiting Europe. Indeed, he wrote to Tom Roberts on 8 January 1906, commenting that ‘I am painting a Turnerian gem …’; in Andrew McKenzie, Frederick McCubbin 1855–1917: ‘The Proff’ and his art, Mannagum Press, Lilydale, 1990, p 243.
3. Frederick McCubbin, in James MacDonald, The art of Frederick McCubbin, Boolarong Publications, Brisbane, 1986, p 84.
4. Radford, p 84.
5. Frederick McCubbin, letter to Annie McCubbin, 19 July 1907, in McKenzie, p 259.
6. Whistler was a leading proponent of the credo ‘art for art’s sake’. He famously titled many of his works ‘harmonies’ and ‘arrangements’, such as Arrangement in grey and black: the artist’s mother (Musée du Louvre, Paris).
7. McCubbin, in MacDonald, p 84.
8. McCubbin, in McKenzie, p 259. Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010