The most poetic of McCubbin’s late paintings, Afterglow returns in composition and mood to the inspiration of some earlier works. Some of these landscapes had already shown the influence of Camille Corot, but now there was a very different and very modern application of animated broken colour. Broad palette-knife flecks of reds, indigoes and olives suggest the brown trees; the foreground is rendered with boldlyapplied pinks and greens. McCubbin had admired Corot’s work, through reproductions, long before the National Gallery of Victoria bought that artist’s The bent tree (see p 47) with great fanfare and expense in 1907. One of McCubbin’s scrapbooks includes black-and-white illustrations of Corot’s paintings, among which is The bath of Diana now held by the Musée des Beaux-Arts at Bordeaux. The composition makes an interesting comparison with Afterglow—both have a transparent coulisse of trees above a water’s edge and bathers, though McCubbin has only a single bather entering the water while three companions remain naked on the grass.
Further, in a 1906 article on Corot in the London magazine, the Studio, featured among the black-and-white illustrations is Corot’s The bathers, depicting female figures in a foreground pool. McCubbin could not have failed to see this painting of similar subject and composition. His Afterglow, originally exhibited in winter 1912 as ‘Summer evening’, also displays the romantic glow of the great seventeenth-century Roman landscape painter Claude Lorrain; the feathery foliage with small figures further recalls Antoine Watteau’s eighteenth-century landscape idylls. Another old-masterly reference is the pose of the figure lowering herself into the water; it is the same as the right-hand nude in Titian’s Pastoral concert c 1510, one of the most celebrated paintings in the Louvre. ‘Proff’ McCubbin could not have missed it on his visit to Paris in 1907, and would have already known about this great masterpiece; of all the Australian impressionists he was the one most aware of the old masters and art history.
Although the elegiac Afterglow absorbs much from the traditional conventions of European landscape painting, it nonetheless depicts a specific place. The site of the pool is on ‘Ard Choille’, a large hill station established by William MacGregor at Mount Macedon near Melbourne. It was immediately above McCubbin’s own retreat (which he’d bought in 1901 and named ‘Fontainebleau’, after the forest near Paris where Corot had painted, and to which McCubbin made a pilgrimage during his overseas trip in 1907). The pond at ‘Ard Choille’ is the highest and largest of seven small lakes, the others forming an irrigation system for extensive landscaping on the north face of Mount Macedon. This pond was named Lake Strathmore and survives, though MacGregor’s house does not. Natural bush, seen in the painting, still surrounds much of ‘Ard Choille’ and Lake Strathmore. The view looks north to the Great Dividing Range, its Cobaw Range section barely visible through gum trees and the haze of a tremulous, fading sky.
McCubbin sometimes brought his National Gallery art school students from Melbourne to ‘Fontainebleau’. He certainly did so in the summer of 1912, when he painted Afterglow there. Lake Strathmore was also used for swimming and boating and would have been the inspiration for painting bathers in this Arcadian setting. But McCubbin had composed female nudes in landscapes before, and would do so again. His The bathers, painted in 1906, was even more Corotesque; it was illustrated in his 1916 monograph but is now unfortunately lost. There were many female nudes in the Summer idyll which McCubbin exhibited in 1910, but he later painted out the figures and this work is now given the title Oliver’s Hill, Frankston (cat 35). In 1914 he again painted female bathers in his best-known late work, Golden sunlight (cat 62).
McCubbin made late oil sketches of nudes, most probably during life classes at the National Gallery’s school. These small oils on board, of which Nude study (cat 34 ) is an example, were the likely source for the small figures in these large canvases; certainly nude female models or students would not have posed for him outdoors in the landscape itself.
Afterglow had not been shown at the National Gallery of Australia for nearly 20 years until the Gallery’s Conservation Department completed extensive cleaning and restoration in late 2005. Removal of clumsy patches, old repaints, and hardened and darkened household varnish, restored this faded masterpiece to its former glory. X-ray photographs taken during the conservation process reveal that the landscape was painted over a female portrait facing left, in vertical format, probably executed about a decade earlier. A newly made period frame, in the Thallon frame-maker’s style much used by McCubbin, now appropriately surrounds Afterglow.
Gray & Radford, McCubbin: Last Impressions 1907–17, National Gallery of Australia, 2009
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
Afterglow is one of a number of landscapes that Frederick McCubbin painted towards the end of his life in which he evoked subtle light effects and atmospheric conditions. In this painting he conveyed the warm glow that lingers over the land after sunset. He applied stippled, glazed and scumbled paint to the canvas until the surface seems to vibrate under the flickering brushstrokes.
McCubbin painted Afterglow near his retreat at Mount Macedon, about an hour’s train ride from Melbourne. He completed it in his studio, adding three female figures to the composition, which he would have painted from sketches made earlier.
McCubbin was born in Melbourne and became a prominent Australian Impressionist, noted for his images of the Australian bush in which he extolled the life of the pioneers. After his one and only trip to Europe in 1907, on leave from his job as drawing master at the National Gallery School in Melbourne, McCubbin’s style became freer. Afterglow shows this looser approach to painting inspired by the work of English artist J M W Turner and the French Impressionist painters, with McCubbin applying the colour in small flecks of paint.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Ron Radford (ed), Collection highlights: National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2008
Afterglow is one of a number of landscapes that Frederick McCubbin painted with plump females basking on grassy slopes. Charles Conder, Tom Roberts and Arthur Streeton had all painted images of nude bathing in a bush setting in the late 1880s. Streeton and Conder both painted views of boys bathing in the Yarra river in 1890 (The Yarra, Heidelberg and Spring 1890).
McCubbin’s bathers inhabit a soft dreamy landscape. There is a certain traditional influence felt in the work which is reminiscent of old master depictions of the story of the bath of Diana. This painting is clearly influenced by Corot’s version, in which a single bather stands in the water while her companions remain on the bank, a reproduction of which was pasted into McCubbin’s sketchbook.
This work, which was exhibited in 1921 as Afterglow, Macedon, seems to be inspired by a swampy area at Macedon on the road near Fontainebleau. It was completed in McCubbin’s studio with the addition of the female figures. These would have been painted from sketches he had made earlier.
Despite the influence of Corot’s painting and others depicting the story of Diana, McCubbin did not title his painting ‘Bath of Diana’, as John Glover did a century before – he was not using mythology to make a comment about contemporary life. Instead, his title highlights his concern with painting light effects; Afterglow shows the glow of evening light which remains lingering in the sky after sunset. McCubbin wanted to portray the subtle effects of light on foliage and flesh.
1 Edited and amended from Bridget Whitelaw, The Art of Frederick McCubbin, Melbourne: National Gallery of Victoria, 1991, pp.108–9.
Text © National Gallery of Australia, Canberra 2010
From: Anne Gray (ed), Australian art in the National Gallery of Australia, National Gallery of Australia, Canberra, 2002