This triptych is considered one of the masterpieces of Australian art, and was the largest and most ambitious of Frederick McCubbin's pioneering history works. It was produced only three years after Federation, and was described as 'self-consciously nationalistic; proud of the prosperity of the fine city seen in the background - Its mood of quiet optimism is unqualified'.
It was painted plein-air, by lowering the canvas into specially dug trenches in the bush on Mount Macedon, close to McCubbin's home, 'Fontainebleau'. McCubbin exhibited the work in a one-man show in 1904, with an asking price of 525 pounds. There was no interest in the work, and his friend Walter Withers suggested to McCubbin that he rework the third and final panel, by adding a distant view of the City of Melbourne. This was much more to the liking of the National Gallery of Victoria, who subsequently purchased the work in 1905, for the sum of 367 pounds ten shillings.
Like many of McCubbin's narrative works, the story is ambiguous, and one wonders whether this was a deliberate ploy by McCubbin, who kept his distance and silence when any controversy arose as to which version of the story was correct.
The first panel, represents the free-selector, who has ventured into the bush with his wife, and has chosen the bushland property for their future home. The wife looks despondent, and her expression is one of a person deep in thought.
The second, centre panel, represents the settled landscape. The free-selector has worked hard and has time for a rest. He has cleared much of their property and has built a hut for shelter, and the smoke rising from its chimney indicates that he has provided warmth. The panel shows that time has elapsed, and his wife indicates this with their baby that she holds in her arms.
The third panel, represents some time in the distant future, and it is in this panel that the ambiguous nature of McCubbin's work is most evident. We know that time has passed, with a city now visible in the distant background. But McCubbin, does not tell who the youth is in this last panel, and what the grave is that he has found. Does he just represent the next generation, a stranger who has stumbled upon the graves of the pioneer and possibly his wife in the bush?, or is it the young child, depicted in the second panel, now grown up, and visiting the grave of his parents? McCubbin does not tell us.
The models in this work, are, in the fist panel, Frederick McCubbin's wife, Annie McCubbin, born 25 August 1865, and aged around thirty-nine in this work, and Patrick 'Paddy' Watson, a local wood sawyer, aged around thirty-two, who died on 9 August 1934, aged seventy-two. Patrick Watson also posed for the youth in the third panel. In the second panel, Annie McCubbin once again modelled for the wife of the free-selector, and the baby in her arms is Jimmy Watson, who was the son of Patrick Watson's brother, Robert. The model for the free-selector in the second, centre panel was James Edward, a young professional commercial painter, who painted the interior of the homestead on Churchill Island, as well as the interiors of prominent buildings around Melbourne. He had been seeking casual employment around Mount Macedon, and McCubbin offered him the opportunity to pose for the second panel.
The work was painted in the bush a little above 'Fontainebleau', and the view is across the adjoining property, named 'Ard Choille', (Height of the woods). 'Ard Choille' was owned by Mr William Peter McGregor, 2nd Chairman of BHP, and was his 'highland style' mountain retreat, with highland cattle and man-made lochs stocked with trout and salmon. It is interesting to note that the cottage that appears in the second, centre panel of 'The Pioneer' was on the 'Ard Choille' property and was the cottage for the manager of Mr McGregor's bull farm.
Left: Arthur Streeton - Above Us The Great Grave Sky, 1890