In 1926 La Thangue exhibited Provençal Fishing Boats (Te Puna o Waiwhetu, Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand) at The Royal Academy. Although unspecified, the picture can easily be identified as a section of the waterfront at the attractive fishing port of Martigues. Its fine natural harbour and twelfth century fort, protecting the entrance to an inland lagoon, known as the étan de bérre, had given shelter to a large fleet for centuries and were familiar motifs for the many young artists who took the overnight Paris-Marseilles express.
Writing in 1928, Capt. Leslie Richardson noted that this town made famous by Corot and Ziem, was 'the Venice of Provence', with its quaint houses, 'mellow with age and gay with flowers'. Despite recent commercial developments,
'...one still finds many wielders of the brush along the quays, bearded, black-clad fellows from Montmartre, and clean-shaven, tweed-clad youths from Britain and the United States. Thanks to the artists there are still a few cafés in Martigues where one can catch a little of the pre-war atmosphere of artist's colonies.'1
A favourite port for French and British artists of the early years of the century it attracted Raoul Dufy and other Fauve painters and in 1910, its reputation was such that Augustus John succumbed to its charms.2 However, where Dufy was looking for bold, abstract fields of colour, and John was searching for a classical arcadia, La Thangue's Martigues, while being more literal, was no less seductive. Typically, in the present picture he turns away from conventionally picturesque motifs - the gaily-painted boats and colourful verandahs that attracted his contemporaries. For him, the side of a lane overlooking a distant seascape flecked with a lateen-sailed fishing fleet was sufficient. Here, his primary motif was an errant flock of goats - a favourite theme, first addressed in A Provençal Farm, 1902 (Private Collection, sold Christie's, 28 November 1998).
As in the present example, the goatherd is upstaged by a superb study of animals grazing peacefully on one of the minor lanes leading to the town. In this moment of calm, the painter returns Martigues and its hinterland to the days before its beauties had become familiar clichés.
1 Capt. Leslie Richardson, Things Seen in Provence, 1928, (Seeley, Service and Co), pp.139-140.
2 See Denis Coutagne et al, Peintres de la Couleur en Provence, 1875-1920, 1995 (exhibition catalogue, Marseille, Hotel de la Région Provence-Alpes-Cote d'Azure). For John see David Fraser Jenkins and Chris Humphries eds, Gwen John and Augustus John, 2004, (exhibition catalogue, Tate Publishing), p.177 ff.