Art is one of the few things that allows people in the present day to get a glimpse into the past. When a man was walking through an Australian art museum, he stumbled upon a 1904 masterpiece. Much to his surprise, he ended up uncovering something that the art world had no idea existed.
Step In To The National Gallery Of Victoria
During the fall of 2020, a man decided to walk around the National Gallery of Victoria in Melbourne, Australia with only a flashlight.
He started examining all of the famous works of art, but something stopped him in his path. As he shone his flashlight at a 1904 painting, he knew there was something he hadn't noticed before.
Who Was This Man?
The man who decided to walk the halls of the National Gallery of Victoria was Michael Varcoe-Cocks. He works in the museum as the head of conservation.
The reason he was able to notice that something was off in the painting was because he's an expert in art of the latter part of the 19th century and early 20th century.
Figuring Out The Name Of The Painting
As Varcoe-Cocks got closer to the painting, he realized it was called The Pioneer. The Pioneer was painted by Australian artist Frederick McCubbin over 100 years ago.
This work of art is considered to be a masterpiece in Australia and was something Varcoe-Cocks had seen many times before. Viewing it with a flashlight changed things.
A New Perspective
The Pioneer was a piece that Varcoe-Cocks knew well, but viewing it with the flashlight helped him to get a new perspective.
The flashlight showed him more details that had been tucked away. These details most likely wouldn't have shown up with just the lights in the museum. It was time to look for answers.
Getting To Know Frederick McCubbin
In order to start his exploration into The Pioneer, Varcoe-Cocks had to look more into the life of artist Frederick McCubbin.
McCubbin worked odd jobs as a young man, such as being a baker and attorney's clerk, before he got the chance to study art. After art school, he started to make a name for himself.
He Found His Niche
By the time McCubbin was 25, he sold his first piece of art and solidified his career as an artist. He won several awards for his work, which helped him make a name for himself.
Most of his paintings included depictions of the Australian bush, which were the wooded areas of the country.
Where He Got His Inspiration
At the turn of the 20th century, McCubbin moved to Mount Macedon near Melbourne to live in the Australian bush.
The area inspired many of his paintings where he used the colors of the wilderness around him. He was also part of the "plein air" painting movement where artists used the bush as their version of Impressionism.
What Was Australian Impressionism?
Many of the things that McCubbin and other artists from the Plein air movement focused on included colors and tones that were native to the Australian bush.
These were things such as the sand, barren, dry soil, forests, and eucalyptus trees. This time period showed a shift in Australia's sociopolitical structure, which was featured in the movement as well.
McCubbin Paints The Pioneer
Anyone familiar with Australian art history can easily tell that McCubbin's The Pioneer was inspired by Mount Macedon and the Australian bush.
The painting shows a family of early settlers through different panels. What many art enthusiasts found groundbreaking about this painting was that the people in the painting look as though they were photographed.
The Left Panel
The painting was made to look like a storybook with panels going from left to right. The first panel on the left depicted a husband and wife who just arrived in the Australian bush.
This panel likely took place around the 1860s when settlers were allowed to take land in the colonies. The colors featured in this panel are muted with fall and earth tones.
The Wife In The Left Panel
While the husband is pictured in the background making fire, the focus is actually on the wife in the foreground.
Her expression makes it very clear that she has other things on her mind that are making her either tired or stressed about this new adventure. While the husband looks lovingly at his wife, she stares blankly in the distance.
Focusing On The Middle Panel
As the eye moves over to the middle panel, it's clear that some time has passed between the husband and wife. They are now shown with an infant.
The husband and wife stare at each other as he rests after cutting down a log. Also, their home is barely visible in the background.
Moving Over To The Right Panel
The right panel ends this three-part story that has now dramatically sped up in time. A man is seen kneeling at a grave, which is most likely the infant from the second panel at the grave of his parents.
There is now more space in between the trees and a city that looks similar to Melbourne is visible.
The Pioneer Wasn't A Hit When It Was Released
While The Pioneer is considered to be one of the greatest paintings in Australian history, it wasn't seen as so when it first came out.
After the right panel was altered to have a city that looked like Melbourne, it started to become more popular. The Pioneer was seen as an homage to the pioneers who arrived in the bush and helped build the cities that are there today.
McCubbin Didn't Glamorize Pioneers
Something that set The Pioneer apart from other works from the plein air movement was that it didn't glamorize pioneer life.
The left panel clearly showed that the wife was unhappy about what was going on, but the right panel gave people some hope as the son was most likely about to leave the wilderness to live in the city.
Varcoe-Cocks Makes A Connection
There's no doubt that The Pioneer and McCubbin will be remembered in the art world, but Varcoe-Cocks was ready to delve in deeper.
As he brought the flashlight closer to the painting, he noticed there was a new figure behind the paint. He realized this was something McCubbin was trying to hide.
In His Own Words
No one was going to the museum during the fall of 2020, so Varcoe-Cocks had extra time on his hands.
"I was doing the rounds during lockdown, walking around with a [flashlight] checking all of the paintings. [Then] I came past the very famous The Pioneer," said Varcoe-Cocks. He was ready to share his findings with the world.
How Did He Notice The Figure?
Varcoe-Cocks knew that the figure wasn't part of The Pioneer because there was "a form in the texture that didn't relate to that final composition."
He needed to look more intensely at the painting, so he got out some X-rays of it that had been made in 2013. There was now a visible outline of the figure.
Turning To McCubbin For Answers
After spotting the figure in the X-rays, Varcoe-Cocks looked at a scrapbook owned by McCubbin. There was a painting inside called Found that featured a bushman with a child.
Varcoe-Cocks realized he had seen the same figure in The Pioneer. "I could see this big form of a bushman holding a little child, a limp figure, who has just been found in the bush," said Varcoe-Cocks.
Why Nobody Had Seen Found
After making this realization, he now had answers as to why Found had been lost. Varcoe-Cocks digitally overlaid the figure to the spot on The Pioneer and it was a perfect match.
He had just solved one of the biggest mysteries in art history, but it was a bittersweet revelation.
Found Can Never Actually Be Found
While Varcoe-Cocks knew that Found was now out there, there wasn't a way for it to be recovered. McCubbin painted The Pioneer on top of it.
Oil painters ended up doing this a lot because buying fresh canvases was expensive. Even famous artists such as Pablo Picasso did the same thing.
This Wasn't The Only Occurrence
McCubbin would regularly layer his oil paintings as part of his process. This allowed him to add or eliminate every detail until he felt that a piece was complete.
This process is called pentimenti, which translates to "remnants of earlier paintings." Varcoe-Cocks just felt lucky that he was able to catch on to something that wasn't well-known about McCubbin.
It was a very rare occurrence that Varcoe-Cocks caught McCubbin's pentimenti with just a flashlight. Experts usually only find it through infrared reflectography.
This process shines a lot more light on the painting, so people can see what is behind it. There were some other paintings where McCubbin used pentimenti.
Pentimenti Was Used On The Letter
An art scientist named Raye Collins realized that pentimenti was used in another one of McCubbin's paintings called The Letter.
The painting shows a lady in Victorian clothing walking by a river while looking at a note. As Collins X-rayed The Letter, she knew for certain that there was another painting underneath.
What Was Beneath The Letter
As Collins looked closer, she realized that the painting underneath The Letter was something McCubbin created during his time in art school.
"We were very surprised to find this still [painting] underneath. It's very significant; it helps us build this whole story about the painting, and the painting also tells us a lot about the National Gallery School," said Collins.
More Pentimenti In McCubbin's Work
The Australian Synchrotron, a machine that produces extremely bright light, was used to find more pentimenti in McCubbin's work.
It was shone on a painting called The North Wind that was completed in 1888. The landscape is a bit different than most of his paintings, which reflected the hardships of the settlers.
Going Back To The Pioneer
It wasn't clear to Varcoe-Cocks if the pentimenti in The Pioneer would add more value to the painting; even though it's already worth millions of dollars.
However, the pentimenti clearly adds more texture, depth, and dimension to the piece. Varcoe-Cocks believes it "culturally has many more layers to it now."
Why McCubbin Painted Over Found
Found actually received some recognition when it was released in 1893. McCubbin showed it at the Victorian Artists' Society Exhibition and many of the attendees praised him for his work.
Artists need to make money to survive and that was the one thing McCubbin needed. He had some offers, but none were near the price he wanted.
Canvases Were Almost Sacred
Since McCubbin didn't receive a decent offer for Found, he decided he would save it to use as a canvas for The Pioneer. Instead of wasting the canvas, McCubbin put it to good use.
"It became one idea. It merged into this really major epic sort of work of The Pioneer," said Varcoe-Cocks.
The Lost Painting Had Been Found
While Varoe-Cocks was ecstatic to find the remnants of Found in The Pioneer, he knew there was a lot more to the story.
"I started to realize the implications of what Found actually was. It was the origin of The Pioneer," said Varcoe-Cocks. He now knows to take an extra careful look at any McCubbin painting he sees in the future.