Henry La Thangue possessed the enviable ability to extrapolate an entire composition from a single figure pose. Working from his drawings (lot 18), feet positions alone establish the floor plane and the turn of a torso might be used to indicate the main contours of the scene. In earlier, single point perspectives such as The Ploughboy 1900 (Aberdeen Art Gallery), a country lane retreating to the horizon, drew the spectator into a simple rural idyll.1
The idea the man and beast should comply with their surroundings in a picture was not new. In an interview with George Thomson, a few years before, La Thangue argued,
'It is a much discussed question how far the painter should impose his personality or pre-conception upon the scenes in nature he portrays. There is a phrase often heard in the Paris schools bearing on this point, which, I think, might elucidate much if used in a candid spirit. Is the study dans le sentiment de la Nature?... The model is a girl, young, healthy, vivacious. The student paints an admirable study as to construction, colour, and the rest, but nevertheless, the general aspect of the picture is sad. The thing is not dans le sentiment de la Nature.'2
La Thangue's idea, derived from his student days at the École des Beaux Arts, was that all elements within a picture - the main lines of the composition, the points where detailed observation is required - all should contribute to its emotional force. In the mature canvases of the 1920s this remained as true as ever, and there is no clearer demonstration of his precepts than Girl with Jars. Here, the figure, arms splayed in a triangular shape, carrying two empty earthenware jars, echoes the geometry of the bridge in what is one of La Thangue's most dramatic compositions. The angle of her shoulder as she turns chimes with that of the flagstones, and her left points down into the hollow where she will fill the containers. The narrative is completed by the arrival of the goats in the top right hand corner of the picture.
Watering the goats was, of course, a familiar motif for La Thangue. An earlier example of such a scene, A Provençal Spring, 1903 (Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), shows a child crouching by a mountain stream, filling similar earthenware jars. These half-glazed pots, seen for the first time in In the Dauphiné, 1886 (Private Collection) were common throughout the south of France and the former Italian provinces of Savoy and Piedmont. For contemporary critics, A Provençal Spring was hailed as a 'brilliant exercise' in 'strong colour and illumination', one declaring simply that 'Mr La Thangue ... knows what he wishes to do and he knows the way to do it'.3
The same self-assurance is evident here and while other variations on the theme followed, none was so dramatic as the present picture in which a young woman confidently approaches the edge of a fast-flowing mill-race in a steep mountain crevice. Painted with great gusto, Girl with Jars is a tour de force. While he could not be criticised for painting such scenes, Walter Sickert noted that many of La Thangue's works were 'crowned' with 'a young man's fancy' - ie an attractive young woman who doubled as a goatherd, grape-picker or apple-gatherer. This pictorial good fortune may, he feared, give an 'exaggerated ... idea of the universe'.4 However, in searching for 'the sentiment of nature' it was the truth of ensemble that La Thangue was aiming for and his healthy paysanne looks away from the spectator. Flirtatious glances were left to his more superficial Academy colleagues and in the present instance, nothing detracts from one of the painter's most extraordinary compositions.
1 McConkey, 1978, p. 37.
2 George Thomson, 'HH La Thangue and his Work', The Studio, vol IX, 1896, p. 177.
3 The Art Journal, 1903, p.177; The Athenaeum, 16 May 1903, p. 632; quoted in McConkey, 1978, p.22.