The Letter by Frederick McCubbin

Your inspiration for today is The Letter by Frederick McCubbin.

Frederick McCubbin, The Letter, 1884
Frederick McCubbin, The Letter, 1884

(Click here to download a high-resolution photo of the painting.)

Some key notes and observations:

  • The subject is ambiguous and open to interpretation. What is the letter? Who is the lady?
  • There’s an interesting play between the shadowed foreground and the light background. Notice how the lights push into the shadows and the shadows push into the lights. This overlap creates a strong cohesion between the two areas. The lights and shadows are both distinct and part of the larger whole.
  • The positioning of the lady is important. She pushes up into the light, illuminating parts of her face and body and creating intricate shadow patterns. This focuses attention on her. More light and contrast=more focus. Think about what the painting would look like if she was bathed entirely in shadow in the bottom corner.
  • The lady also breaks up that strong diagonal line that runs through the painting. Notice how the line continues through her body. This helps our eyes travel around the painting.
Frederick McCubbin, The Letter, 1884, Line
  • McCubbin’s brushwork matches the nature of each object or area. He used smooth brushwork for the glassy water; clean, refined brushwork for the lady; and rough, diverse brushwork for the trees, leaves, branches, and ground.
  • The shadowed area is a combination of a toned surface plus a few feature details. The feature details do most of the work and give context to the toned surface. This is an efficient way to paint. It also plays into the idea of a vague, shadowed area that is out of focus.
Frederick McCubbin, The Letter, 1884, Detail 2
  • There’s a pleasant contrast between the subject’s refined and clean appearance and nature’s untamed appearance.
  • The umbrella in the subject’s hand acts as a bright red accent in a sea of dry greens and yellows. A powerful color combination. Also, notice the balance between these colors: a small area of saturated red against a large area of weak greens and yellows.
Frederick McCubbin, The Letter, 1884, Detail 1
  • McCubbin’s sister, Harriet, was modeled as the subject for this painting.
  • There’s another version of the painting with an interior setting instead of the Australian landscape. You can see it in this article, along with details about its recent sale at auction.

If you enjoyed this, you might be interested in Composition Breakdown. I feature another stunning painting by McCubbin in that course.

Happy painting!

Dan Scott


Dan Scott is the founder of Draw Paint Academy. He's a self-taught artist from Australia with a particular interest in landscape painting. Draw Paint Academy is run by Dan and his wife, Chontele, with the aim of helping you get the most out of the art life. You can read more on the About page.

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