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McCubbin, Frederick (Fred) (1855–1917)

by David Thomas

This article was published in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-1913

Frederick McCubbin (1855-1917), by May and Mina Moore, 1910-1913

La Trobe Picture Collection, State Library of Victoria, H38782/1211

Frederick (Fred) McCubbin (1855-1917), painter and art teacher, was born on 25 February 1855 at 165 King Street, Melbourne, third son of Alexander McCubbin, baker from Ayrshire, Scotland, and his English wife Anne, née McWilliams. Educated at William Willmott's West Melbourne Common school and St Paul's School, Swanston Street, at about 14 he was placed in a solicitor's office. He soon joined the family business and drove a baker's cart before being apprenticed to a coach-painter.

In 1869 he enrolled at the Artisans' School of Design, Carlton, and later studied drawing under Thomas Clark at the school of design, National Gallery of Victoria. He completed his coach-painting apprenticeship in 1875 but next year his hopes for furthering his studies at the gallery were curtailed by the death of his father and the need to assist with the family business. McCubbin continued in the school of design under O. R. Campbell, and joined the school of painting as well under Eugen von Guerard in 1877. Tom Roberts and Mackennal were fellow students. He remained at the art schools on the appointment of G. F. Folingsby in 1882 and next year was awarded the trustees' first prize in the first of the annual students' exhibitions. He also studied and exhibited at the Victorian Academy of Art, showing in their annual exhibitions of 1876 and 1879-82, selling his first painting, 'View Near Fisherman's Bend', from the 1880 exhibition. In 1882 he was awarded a silver medal for figure drawing in the academy life-class and was elected an associate.

When Roberts returned from overseas in 1885, he and McCubbin went on painting trips, camping at Housten's farm at Box Hill, at Mentone on Port Phillip Bay and later in the Heidelberg area. Here they were joined by Arthur Streeton, Charles Conder and others, these first camps marking the beginning of what came to be called the Heidelberg school. Nicknamed 'The Proff' because of his philosophizing, McCubbin was a strong advocate of the particularly national element in the work of the school, drawing his inspiration both from the earlier traditions of colonial art and the growing sense of nationalism of the time.

In 1886 he was appointed drawing master of the school of design and held this position for the rest of his life. A group of professional artists led by McCubbin, Roberts, John Ford Paterson and others broke away from the Victorian Academy of Art in 1887 and formed the Australian Artists' Association. A committee-member, McCubbin participated in the association's exhibitions until it amalgamated with the academy in 1888 as the Victorian Artists' Society. McCubbin served as a councillor of the society from the beginning and was president in 1903-04 and 1909. He contributed regularly to its annual exhibitions until 1912, when he resigned to join with seven other artists to form the Australian Art Association as its first president.

In 1889 he had joined Roberts, Streeton, Conder, C. Douglas Richardson, R. E. Falls and Herbert Daly in the exhibition of 9 x 5 impressions at Buxton's Galleries. He occasionally participated in the Society of Artists' exhibitions of the late 1890s in Sydney, was represented in the 1898 Exhibition of Australian Art, Grafton Galleries, London, and held one-man shows in Melbourne from about 1904. He had married Annie Lucy Moriarty at St Ignatius Church, Richmond, on 5 March 1889. In the following years they lived in the Melbourne suburbs of Auburn, Blackburn, Brighton and Carlton, then for several years in the cottage named Fontainebleau at Macedon, and finally at Carlsburg, South Yarra. On the death of Folingsby in 1891 McCubbin was acting director of the National Gallery until the appointment of Bernard Hall in 1892, and was so again in 1903 and 1905. He did not find Hall a congenial superior. He visited Tasmania in 1899, and in 1907 was given leave from the gallery to visit England and Europe, staying with his old friend Roberts and visiting numerous galleries and art schools. He was given further leave in 1916 owing to ill health and he died of heart disease on 20 December 1917 at South Yarra, and was buried in Brighton cemetery. His wife, four sons including Louis and two daughters survived him.

McCubbin's first work to be acquired for a public gallery was 'Feeding Time', purchased by the National Gallery of Victoria in 1894 and exchanged for 'A Winter Evening' in 1900; 'The Pioneers' was also acquired in 1906. The Western Australian and New South Wales galleries made purchases in 1896 and 1897; 'A Bush Burial' was bought by public subscription for the Geelong Art Gallery in 1900; and the Art Gallery of South Australia purchased paintings in 1900 and 1912.

McCubbin, as one of the founders of the Heidelberg school, was a major figure in the development of the Australian school of landscape and subject painting that emerged at the close of the nineteenth century. His early interest in the portrayal of national life was illustrated in his large subject pictures of recent history, extolling the virtues and quiet heroism of the pioneers. His work was directly influenced by the earlier traditions of Australian colonial art, late-Victorian subject pictures of a high moral tone, Folingsby's interests in heroic history pieces, and the young colony's emerging sense of national identity. Other influences included Louis Buvelot, Roberts and plein air realism, combined with the example of Bastien-Lepage and his humble peasants. In later years McCubbin turned increasingly to landscape painting, portraying the lyrical and intimate beauty of the bush. The early influence of Corot gave way to that of J. M. W. Turner, as he turned from the quiet poetry of the shaded bush to the brilliant impressionistic effects of light and colour of his final manner. He was also a portrait painter.

A warm and gregarious personality and a gentle and intuitive teacher, Frederick McCubbin contributed greatly to the art world in Melbourne by his activities in various societies, through the conviviality of the McCubbin house which was always a focus for artists and students, and as a teacher of several generations of artists. He was a member of the Savage Club.

An early self-portrait is in the Art Gallery of New South Wales and a later one in the Art Gallery of South Australia. A retrospective exhibition to mark the centenary of the artist's birth was held at the National Gallery of Victoria in 1955.

Select Bibliography

  • E. La T. Armstrong, The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria: 1856-1906 (Melb, 1906)
  • J. S. MacDonald (ed), The Art of Frederick McCubbin (Melb, 1916)
  • E. La T. Armstrong and R. D. Boys,The Book of the Public Library, Museums, and National Gallery of Victoria, 1906-1931 (Melb, 1932)
  • B. Smith, Australian Painting, 1788-1960 (Melb, 1962)
  • A. Galbally, Frederick McCubbin (Melb, 1981)
  • K. Mangan, Daisy Chains, War, Then Jazz (Melb, 1984)
  • Meanjin Quarterly, 15 (1956) no. 3
  • Art and Australia, 7 (June 1969)
  • Committee of the National Gallery to the Trustees of the Public Library, Museums and National Gallery of Victoria, Reports, 1870-86
  • La Trobe Library Journal, 6, no 24, Oct 1979
  • minute books of the Victorian Academy of the Arts, Australian Artists' Association and Victorian Artists' Society (State Library of Victoria)
  • private information.

Related Entries in NCB Sites

Citation details

David Thomas, 'McCubbin, Frederick (Fred) (1855–1917)', Australian Dictionary of Biography, National Centre of Biography, Australian National University, http://adb.anu.edu.au/biography/mccubbin-frederick-fred-7328/text12715, published in hardcopy 1986, accessed online 31 October 2014.

This article was first published in hardcopy in Australian Dictionary of Biography, Volume 10, (MUP), 1986

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