Widely heralded as one of Australia’s greatest works of art, The Pioneer—a monumental 1904 triptych by Impressionist Frederick McCubbin—tells the story of a young family that settles in a part of the Australian bush later transformed into the city of Melbourne. Alternatively described as a “self-consciously nationalistic” celebration of prosperity, an elevation of the pioneer figure within Australian art history, and an acknowledgment of rural laborers’ poverty and hardship, the work is famed for its ambiguous narrative.
Now, an exciting find by the National Gallery of Victoria (NGV) in Melbourne suggests that The Pioneer’s secrets extend, quite literally, beyond its surface. As Patrick Carlyon reports for the Sunday Herald Sun, the gallery’s head of conservation, Michael Varcoe-Cocks, recently realized that the aptly titled Found, a painting created by McCubbin in the late 1800s, spent more than a century hidden beneath the better-known triptych.
Obscured from onlookers by layers of vibrant green and brown brushstrokes, Found, which depicts a life-size bushman holding a small child, was previously known solely through a small black-and-white photograph included in the artist’s scrapbook. Michael Varcoe-Cocks, the gallery’s head of conservation, rediscovered the lost masterpiece after noticing the shadow of an odd shape on The Pioneer’s surface.
“I was doing the rounds during lockdown, walking around with a [flashlight] checking all of the paintings, and I came past the very famous The Pioneer,” he tells Sunrise’s Hamish Goodall. “I noticed a form in the texture that didn’t relate to that final composition.”
Curious whether McCubbin had painted over an earlier work, Varcoe-Cocks decided to investigate the matter further. He consulted X-rays taken of The Pioneer in 2013 and spotted shapes not present in the final composition, but was unable to place the familiar form. Several days later, the curator finally recalled where he’d seen the image: in the faded photograph featured in the scrapbook.
“I digitally overlaid this to that,” Varcoe-Cocks says to Herald Sun. “It was a perfect match. It’s always a remarkable and wonderful thing to solve an otherwise unsolved mystery.”
He adds, “I started to realize the implications of what Found actually was. It was the origin of The Pioneer.”
McCubbin was an innovator in the Australian art world, founding the Heidelberg School of Australian Impressionism with several contemporaries. The Pioneer is an exemplary example of the movement, which focused on Australia’s landscape as a symbol of burgeoning national identity.
McCubbin’s Found was also a respected painting during its time, receiving plaudits when it was presented at the 1893 Victorian Artists’ Society Exhibition but failing to sell due to its high price—a fact that may have contributed to the artist’s later reuse of the canvas.
The Australian Impressionist was far from the only artist to paint over older works. (Pablo Picasso, for one, had a habit of repurposing old canvases when he was running low on funds.) Oil paints can be applied in layers, making it relatively easy to alter—or cover up entirely—earlier details. McCubbin himself used layering techniques throughout his career, often creating detailed underpaintings and continuing to add or remove paint until he was happy with a work’s ultimate appearance, according to a 2014 essay published by the NGV.
Conservators often rely on technology like infrared reflectography—a technique for seeing underpaintings and compositional alterations in paintings—to determine whether works conceal hidden features beneath their final compositions. Varcoe-Cocks, however, discovered the long-lost painting by sheer chance.
As he tells the Herald Sun, “If I wasn’t walking through in the dark, with a [flashlight], on my own, I probably wouldn’t have had time to focus on it, make the connection and revisit the X-ray and to rediscover this little photo in a scrapbook we had in storage.”