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
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
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 1907.6 The title
may have come from a line in a poem by the American
poet Stephen Crane: ‘In little songs of carmine, violet,
green and gold. A chorus of colors came over the water’.
But in giving it the abstract title of Violet and gold he was,
more importantly, suggesting that it was a painting about
colour and paint and light rather than about cows. While
he named other works 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