Art Review: Fredrick McCubbin, The Pioneer

By 1904 the gold rush had ended and the bushrangers hung, the romantic era of the pioneer was over, however the spirit was not, you could still speak to the elderly of the new federation who remembered the Eureka Stockade building of the towns and cities and the gold rush. The Pioneer tells the story of these times; possibly the greatest Hiedelburg work it is the ultimate expression of spiritual nationalism. Painted shortly after Federation The Pioneer is one of McCubbins many narrative works, intended to show Australians how far we had come in our little over 100 years of history. In all three panels the subject sits in the foreground, however the background is equally important to the narrative.


The first panel shows the wife of the pioneer, she sits in the foreground looking down trodden and melancholic at the prospect of her new life in the colonies. The man sits patiently in the background. As he boils his billy by the wagon he watches her from behind. Reading between the lines I think that it is safe to say that he, like all Australian men of good character, know that while she may not approve of his actions, he does them for her. It is in the blood of the British man to be strong in time of great hardship and make great sacrifices for that which we care about, even if they do not understand the reason for the sacrifices that we make.


The second panel progresses the narrative, in the foreground sits the pioneer, his sleeves rolled up he takes rest on a felled tree. His wife, also in the foreground, now faces him. Unlike the first where she was turned away from him now she holds their native born child in her arms as they look at each other. Like the first panel the background tells the story as much as the foreground. The small white cottage in the clearing shows the progress that they have made. Now that the wife is comfortable she undoubtedly understand the earlier discomforts and sacrifices which they had made. The third panel completes the narrative, like the two former panels the third is split into two parts, foreground and background. The foreground shows the pioneer squatting over a grave, presumably the grave of his wife. An individualist would end the story here, however McCubbin continues the story. Through the trees of we can see Melbourne, now a thriving city. McCubbin shows us that whitest the individual life may have ended the achievements of the pioneers live on and can still be seen today.


This three part work is known in the art world as a triptych, it is a common motif from Gothic era religious painting. While most triptychs are not a narrative work The Pioneer holds major visual similarity between McCubbins work and the triptychs of the 13th century is the motif of woman and child. Many of the most famous triptychs depict the Virgin Mary holding the infant Christ on the centre panel flanked by angels, cherubs, priests or knights on the left and right panels. The central panel of McCubbins The Pioneer features an nativist re-imagining of this 600 year old motif. The woman stand on an angle facing her husband, she holds their child on her right side. Interestingly in The Pioneer the woman faces her husband rather than the audience. The man sits, leaning forward, elbow on knee and beard in hand as though he were admiring one of these medieval triptychs in an art gallery. McCubbin made all of these choices deliberately. The combination of styles and techniques come together to emphasise the spiritual aspect of Australian Nationalism. Most think of the Australian mythos of mateship, self sacrifice and service of family and country was created in the trenches of World War One but the art and poetry of the founders of this country show that our mythos has existed for as long as the Australian people have existed.


Nativist Herald