Australia 1855 – 1917
oil on canvas
not signed. not dated
48.5 (h) x 41.0 (w) cm
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
McCubbin painted at least six self-portraits, of which this, painted at the age of 53, is one of the most intimate and searching. Here he 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.
He 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. As in Rembrandt’s portrait, McCubbin depicted himself in a self-assured pose, in half-figure view, with moustache and wearing a beret. He tilts his chin, and looks out with a sideways gaze.
McCubbin was given a book on Rembrandt by his students in 1906. The book’s author Émile Michel observed that Rembrandt
recognised in the eyes and the mouth the most significant features of the human face, the features which best reveal the expression of life and the process of thought … While the likeness is evidently closely studied, his personages are distinguished by a mysterious and transparent profundity of gaze, inviting us to a closer and more lingering study of their individuality. It is this which makes it impossible to forget some of these portraits (Émile Michel, Rembrandt: a memorial 1606–1906, William Heinemann, London, 1906, p 42).
Likewise, in McCubbin’s work, it is the eyes and the gaze which give the portrait life.
In his ‘Reminiscences’ of c 1910–11, McCubbin noted that as a young man he had hoped ‘that some day I might paint pictures like [those] I saw [in] engravings of Titian and Turner and Rembrandt’ (‘Autobiographical reminiscences’, SLV, p 22). He had earlier written to his wife Annie on 11 July 1907 that the portraits by Rembrandt that he had seen were ‘so intimate and familiar’ (Mackenzie 1990, p 257), something that could also be said of McCubbin’s own self-portrait.
At one time this work belonged to McCubbin’s friend, William Montgomery (1850–1927), a leading Melbourne stained-glass artist, a President of the Victorian Artists’ Society and a Trustee of the Public Library and National Gallery of Victoria from 1916 until his death. Montgomery sponsored McCubbin and his friends in their noted 9 by 5 Impression Exhibition (1889) by advertising in the catalogue.