Frederick MCCUBBIN | Violet and gold

Frederick MCCUBBIN
Australia 1855 – 1917

Violet and gold 1911
oil on canvas
signed and dated l.l. ' McCubbin / 19(illeg) '
72.0 (h) x 130.0 (w) cm
Purchased with the generous assistance of the Hon. Ashley Dawson-Damer and John Wylie AM & Myriam Wylie, 2008
National Gallery of Australia, Canberra
NGA 2007.1660


Violet and gold is a brilliant light-filled work in which McCubbin depicted a beam of light reaching through trees onto cattle and also flickering within the dark trees in a dappled effect. McCubbin once quoted Monet’s observation that ‘Light is the chief sitter everywhere’ (‘Some remarks’, MacDonald 1916, p 84), and such is true in this painting. The shimmering, dazzling light in Violet and gold also shows how much McCubbin had learnt from Turner. As Turner often did, McCubbin made a small round shining orb of the sun the central, dominating force of the composition. The rich painterly surface reflects the textures of the Australian bush. In some areas McCubbin has almost splattered his paint over the coarse canvas, animating the surface with flecks of colour. His free handling of paint and his layering of pure colours is dazzling.

Although ostensibly an image of cattle drinking at a pool surrounded by tall trees, and full of pastoral charm and end-of-day ease, McCubbin’s focus in this work was on light and colour, rather than subject. As Ron Radford has noted, Violet and gold is ‘one of McCubbin’s most beautiful Macedon paintings’. ‘Here there is no narrative, only poetry’ (Our country 2001, p 85). When the work was reproduced in MacDonald 1916, it was given an abstract, poetic title, ‘Violet and gold’, possibly under the influence of Whistler. The title may also have come from a line in a poem by the American poet, Stephen Crane: ‘In little songs of carmine, violet, green, gold./A chorus of colors came over the water…’ But more importantly, this abstract title suggests that the painting was about colour and paint and light. While other works are called Winter sunlight (cat 11), Coming of spring (cat 54) and Autumn morning, South Yarra (cat 72), emphasising the time of year or time of day, here the title indicates the palette McCubbin used and the mood he sought to evoke.

The location of Violet and gold was about one kilometre from McCubbin’s country retreat, ‘Fontainebleau’, at Mount Macedon, on the nearby property of ‘Ard Choille’. McCubbin painted a number of works there, such as Hauling rails for a fence, Mount Macedon (cat 39) and Afterglow (Summer evening) (cat 51), which derive from his deep knowledge and love of the place and his lived experience. This timbered area below Mount Macedon was low-lying and swampy. McCubbin was fascinated by the Australian eucalypt, and suggested that other Australian artists did not appreciate its qualities, writing:

The subtle way in which it responds to varying effects of light and shadow was lost on them … The varieties in shades and colours the Gum tree presented, from the violet grey tints of the stringy bark to the transparent sheen of the White Gum, upon which colours disport and change in a hundred subtle ways as they would upon a mirror. Yet our trees and our faded flora are such component parts of our Australian landscape (‘Some remarks’, MacDonald 1916, p 84).

In Violet and gold McCubbin focussed on a thicket of trees, emphasising the denseness of the bush and hardly showing any sky. He used the reflections in the pool to add to the internality of the work—with the mirror-image in the water creating an illusionist echo of the trees. He created a dynamic composition by contrasting the strong verticals of the tree trunks with the diagonal fall of the shaft of light coming down across the picture towards the right, and with the dark shape of a jagged branch rising diagonally from the left.

The cattle are not in this picture to create a story as much as to give a sense of space to the composition. Indeed, if the cattle were taken out of Violet and gold it would become a dense composition without horizon or sky, with an adventurous paint-laden picture surface filling the image from top to bottom—a remarkably modern picture—showing nature experienced from within.

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