Frederick MCCUBBIN | Self-portrait

Frederick MCCUBBIN
Australia 1855 – 1917

Self-portrait 1916
oil on canvas mounted on plywood
50.3 (h) x 35.0 (w) cm
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth purchased in 1981 with funds from the Great Australian Paintings Appeal


This late self-portrait sits apart from the more dynamically painted landscapes of McCubbin’s last decade, in which colour and paint application, inspired by Turner and Monet, are brought together in an exploration of the possibilities of picture making. The somber palette and the relatively flat paint surface do not get in the way of presenting the artist’s likeness to the viewer, and the only touches of impasto are to be found on the ear, nose and moustache, although the paint surface of the lower-left corner clearly shows evidence of the underlying floral study over which this portrait was painted.

In both composition and colouring this painting is virtually identical to McCubbin’s 1908 Self-portrait (cat 12). His change from a square to a rectangular format, however, has enabled him to bring the diagonal axes in the work into play as strong structural elements to underpin the image, and their convergence on his chin further emphasises the contrast between shadow and light.

McCubbin has chosen not to include any indicators of his identity as an artist (except perhaps for the beret he wears), and the work does not present his public persona to the world. Even though it captures his physical presence through the recording of his ageing features, the work clearly references the paintings of Rembrandt and the Dutch seventeenth-century tradition of the tronie or character study, and is equally a psychological study encouraging the viewer to contemplate the inner life of its subject. That it did so successfully may be gauged from the fact that the painting remained in the possession of the artist’s family until the early 1980s, and that it was used as the frontispiece for the 1955 exhibition to mark the centenary of McCubbin’s birth.

Melissa Harpley

Tickets available online now | open 14 August – 1 November 2009