Australia 1855 – 1917
The old garden
oil on canvas
56.0 (h) x 91.5 (w) cm
State Art Collection, Art Gallery of Western Australia, Perth purchased in 1978 with funds from the Great Australian Paintings Appeal
McCubbin, like many other artists who were captivated by the challenge of depicting ever-changing light and atmospheric effects, often returned to the same subject in order to record its permutations across different seasons, weather conditions and times of the day. Following his move to South Yarra in 1907, the garden at ‘Carlesberg’ became one such motif. The old garden contains all the familiar elements of McCubbin’s numerous paintings of his rambling backyard—the fence cutting across the picture plane, tangled long grass in the foreground and trees screening the mid-ground.
The highly animated paint surface gives the sense of the painting having been quickly laid down, however close inspection reveals it to be a carefully considered and rendered image of a sunlit garden, a study of light and shadow. The compositional key to this is the placement of fence and the central clump of trees, both of which act as a screen drawn across the image, forcing the viewer to focus on how light falls on the vegetation, rather than offering a distracting vista of suburban Melbourne. Even the figure, once the main subject of McCubbin’s paintings is subordinate to the rendering of nature.
That light is McCubbin’s main interest is made clear, too, by his use of a subtle colour palette rather than the intense one he favoured in many late paintings. Although there are small, startling contrasts of red and cobalt blue, and flecks of white on the trees reflect some of the brilliance of the sunlight, the more uniform colouring of soft greens and browns emphasises that this is a study of the play of light and dark on a familiar landscape.