Australia 1855 – 1917
South Yarra, Melbourne, Victoria, Australia
Creation Notes: Melbourne
Materials & Technique: paintings, oil on canvas
‘Love’ is the key to his whole life. He loved swearing (a dinkum Aussie), loved a good story, even against himself; made his students realise his love of art.
A kind and sincere man, Frederick McCubbin was much loved. He had a gentle presence, and the air of a poet and dreamer. He could also be energetic, fun, warm and gregarious—and would gesticulate freely with his arms and hands. He was a thinking man, and he liked to make others think and laugh. He was an extensive and discriminating reader, particularly of biography and high fiction, and enjoyed talking on a wide range of topics.
McCubbin was a son of Melbourne. He was born and brought up in working-class Melbourne, trained at the National Gallery of Victoria’s art school from 1872 to 1886 and was drawing master there from 1886 to 1917. No other Melbourne artist was better known than he during his lifetime. Working together with Tom Roberts, Arthur Streeton and Charles Conder, between 1885 and 1890, McCubbin was part of the legendary group, the Australian Impressionists. He made his name with his national naturalist images of Australian bush life such as Down on his luck 1889 (AGWA), but painted his most brilliant works in his last years, from 1907 to 1917, sparkling impressions filled with light and colour.
This work, painted at the age of 53, is one of at least six self-portraits. It is among the most intimate and searching. McCubbin adopted a spare composition and created an image that is convincing in its subtle modelling of the head. He applied his paint thinly, building up the flesh tones carefully, especially on the left side of the face.
McCubbin may well have based this head-and-shoulders portrait on Rembrandt’s Self-portrait at the age of 34 1640—which he could have viewed in detail in the National Gallery, London in 1907—in which Rembrandt depicted himself in a similar self-assured pose, looking directly out of the picture. As in the master’s painting, the eyes and the mouth in McCubbin’s self-portrait are keenly alive and reveal something of the artist’s mind and soul.
 Arnold Shore on Frederick McCubbin, The Age, Melbourne, 26 October 1957.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray Australian portraits 1880–1960 National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2010