Australia 1855 – 1917
Louis McCubbin (as a boy in fancy dress)
oil on canvas mounted on plywood
65.8 (h) x 55.2 (w) cm
National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne gift of Hugh McCubbin 1960
Louis McCubbin, known in the family as ‘Chunk’, was the eldest of the McCubbin’s seven children. Born on 18 March 1890 he followed his father’s footsteps into art, studying at the National Gallery art school from 1906 to 1911. During the First World War he served in France as a stretcher bearer and was subsequently appointed as an Australian War Records Section artist. However, it was as an arts administrator that he was to make his greatest contribution. He was Director of the Art Gallery of South Australia from 1936 until 1950, and served on the Commonwealth Art Advisory Board from 1945 until 1952. In 1947 he was awarded an OBE for his services to art. He died on 6 December 1952 in Melbourne.
In this portrait of Louis as a youth, McCubbin clearly relished the opportunity to paint the colours of the costume, contrasting a bright emerald green with a rich glowing red. Set against a dark background, with the sitter in three-quarter profile and looking intently at the viewer, in this work McCubbin pays homage to the portraits painted by Rembrandt.
The years before the First World War were the heyday of the fancy-dress ball, and McCubbin’s daughter Kathleen remembered that the family enjoyed such events:
I recalled the days when my family used to dress up and go to fancy-dress balls. What a lot of fun it had been watching mother at the sewing-machine, stiching away at costumes, and seeing the finished result. The costumes looked as though they belonged to characters in a fairy story—beautiful garments made of velvets and satins that my mother embroidered with gold braid or trimmed with spangles. I remember the excitement I used to experience on the night of the ball, when a couple of my brothers dressed up as page boys or princes…(Mangan 1984, p 60).
This portrait was painted in 1908, when Louis would have been 18 years old and a student at the National Gallery’s school, and he may be in costume for an artists’ ball. It is one of several portraits that McCubbin painted of his sons in costume, including another showing Louis in the same oriental costume, a portrait of Alexander, Portrait head of Alexander McCubbin c 1908 (NGV) and one of Hugh, Portrait of a young man in fancy dress c 1912 (private collection).