Australia 1855 – 1917
oil on canvas
106.6 (h) x 66.6 (w) cm
Art Gallery of South Australia, Adelaide purchased through the Elder Bequest Fund, 1912
In November/December 1912 McCubbin wrote to his friend Tom Roberts in England that his work was selling well to private collectors in Melbourne, but the National Gallery of Victoria did ‘nothing—much—except buy Dead Old Masters’ (Tom Roberts letters, ML). Adelaide, on the other hand, he pleasingly continued, ‘has given me £105 for a Self Portrait’.
The Art Gallery of South Australia had purchased the self-portrait from the South Australian Society of Arts Federation Exhibition, where it was described as being ‘not only a good likeness, but an excellent work of art’ (Advertiser, 14 November 1912, p 12). At the time of writing to Roberts, McCubbin’s national reputation had matured, and the acquisition of this work was a public affirmation of his elevated position in Australian art. It was his first self-portrait to enter a major public art collection.
McCubbin’s impulse to create this commanding three-quarter length portrait was most likely driven by his own sense of achievement at the age of 57, a commemorative record of quiet professional satisfaction. Looking distinguished and holding his suit lapel, McCubbin stands before us as a highly successful artist, and recently elected first president of the Australian Art Association.
In the solitary, darkened space of his studio we witness McCubbin’s pleasure in capturing the drama of the raking light with his signature flickering brushwork. The pose, large scale, and sunken tonality point to the portraiture of McCubbin’s American–British predecessor, James McNeill Whistler, yet the brilliance of his highlights is unmistakably that of an antipodean artist who has spent his painting career mastering the magical effects of fractured light.