Australia 1855 – 1917
oil on canvas
95.5 (h) x 152.5 (w) cm
Bush sawyers is the most accomplished and dynamic of McCubbin’s depictions of men sawing timber. The two foresters are shown working a two-man saw, totally absorbed in their work. By presenting them bent over, facing in different directions, McCubbin captured the rhythm of their labour. The giant trees provide a strong vertical counterpoint to the horizontal force of the sawing. The texture of the paint contributes to a shimmering effect in the web of undergrowth viewed under a gently fading light. As with his earlier images of wood cutters, the location of Bush sawyers was a heavily timbered area in the vicinity of McCubbin’s cottage, ‘Fontainebleau’, at Mount Macedon. The models for the two men were the brothers James and Patrick (Paddy) Watson (Mackenzie 1990, p 142).
Reviewers have pointed to the similarities between this work one by the nineteenth-century French painter Jean-François Millet, The wood sawyers c 1850–52 (V&A), which McCubbin could have seen in London in 1907. (Millet had painted the work soon after moving to the village of Barbizon near the forest of Fontainebleau in France, and it was bequeathed to the Museum in 1901). The men in McCubbin’s work are presented in similar poses to the two foreground figures in Millet’s painting, and are wearing clothes of a similar colour. Moreover, as in Millet’s painting, the men’s faces are not shown, thus emphasising the body movements. Millet’s figures, however, seem more sculptural and set apart from their surroundings, while McCubbin’s sawyers appear more natural, and blended into their environment.
McCubbin first depicted the subject around 1907, in a large painting, The wood sawyer (Shepparton), in which he portrayed his eldest son Louis sawing a log. Other works, Sawing timber c 1907 and Woodcutters c 1908, were reproduced in MacDonald 1916 (plates xx and xxv respectively, present whereabouts unknown). These images lack both the energy of Bush sawyers and the sense of enclosure within the bush. To this extent, McCubbin’s acquaintance with Millet’s painting enhanced his imagery, while not impeding his own unique vision.
The Australian colonial painter ST Gill also depicted the subject of sawyers in Woodcutters c 1850 (NLA). Both Streeton and Conder depicted woodcutters at Heidelberg in The selector’s hut 1890 (NGA) and Under the southern sun 1890 (NGA). But unlike these artists (and in his own earlier paintings), McCubbin was not interested in telling a story, he was simply concerned with depicting masculine labour in a natural setting.
Bush sawyers was commissioned by the publishers of Australia Today, the journal of the Commercial Travellers Association of Victoria. A reproduction of it was also included as an unstapled supplement centrepiece in the 1955 McCubbin centenary exhibition catalogue.