During the late 1880s Australia began to formulate a national identity distinct from that of England. A sense of nationalism emerged which questioned the role of England in Australia’s political affairs. As the centenary of Australia’s colonisation drew near this debate was reflected in the art and literature of the time.
Early colonial art often depicted Australia as a replica of the English countryside. This is not surprising when many of the artists were ex-convicts who had been transported to Australia against their will. For them Australia was a country to be suffered while England was still the mother-country. However as the local population grew the cultural relevance of England began to diminish. Artists responded to this shift by emphasising the uniqueness of the Australian landscape in their work. This was especially the case with Frederick McCubin and a group of his fellow artists known collectively as the Heidelberg School.
McCubbin’s Down on His Luck is typical of the art from this period. Painted in 1889 it depicts a gold prospector sitting by a campfire while pensively contemplating his future. The surrounding landscape adds to the melancholic tone. As with much of the artwork from the Heidelberg School the central male figure appears independent and resourceful within the remote rural landscape. Also typical is the absence of women, Aborigines and non-white migrants. The Heidelberg School preferred to celebrate the white male in its narrative, a tradition which continued into the next century.
The National Gallery of Victoria describes the painting’s cultural significance: For city workers, living and working in crowded, dirty conditions, McCubbin’s image of the prospector offered an alternative to the oppressive poverty experienced in the slums of Melbourne. Although the bushman is ‘down on his luck’, he has a certain nobility. He is his own man, independent of the demands of a ‘boss’, he breathes the fresh air of the bush and is free to make his own decisions. The sensibilities portrayed in this painting continue to capture Australia’s national spirit, though the majority of the population now live in urban centres far removed from the bush.
This composition interprets the soundscape immediately surrounding the prospector. A small campfire crackles while birds and cicadas call from the trees.