Samuel John Peploe was the most lauded of the Scottish Colourists, a group made up of Francis Campbell Boileau Cadell, George Leslie Hunter and John Duncan Fergusson. Their use of high-keyed colour and open brushwork would be regarded as a signature of advanced Scottish art. At the time The Black Bottle was painted, Peploe was beginning to seriously engage with the progressive ideas of Impressionist painters on the continent. Between 1904 and 1907, he enjoyed a series of painting holidays on the northern coast of France with his friend and fellow painter, John Duncan Fergusson. While abroad, the artists were not only able to see the work of European painters in the flesh, but they were also able to experiment freely with their technique while painting en plein air at the coast. Peploe’s still lifes from this time have assimilated something of the lightness and spontaneity of these swiftly executed, impressionistic seascapes; the brush strokes in The Black Bottle are especially fluid and assertive, reflecting a new confidence in mark-making and a sensual delight in the act of painting. As Keith Hartley has noted in the catalogue for the 1989 exhibition Scottish Colourists, ‘[In The Black Bottle], brushstrokes no longer define objects so much as suggest them, while retaining an independent existence of their own.’ (K. Hartley, exhibition catalogue, Scottish Colourists, Edinburgh, Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1989, pp. 13-14).
The Black Bottle is widely considered to be one of the finest works from the early years of Peploe’s career. While its subject is a humble assembly of everyday objects set against a plain dark background, the still life is invested with subtle narrative appeal and exquisite painterly acumen. The familiar forms of a bowl, glass bottle, coffee cup and platter of fruit positioned on a white table cloth are arranged in a state of temperate disarray, evoking the comfortable atmosphere that follows a hearty meal. The artist has rendered the scene in creamily textured paint applied with smooth, sumptuous brush strokes, further infusing the still life with a sense of warmth and generosity.
The composition pivots around the slender black bottle that is positioned in the centre of the canvas. The bottle is notably dark, but Peploe prevents it from dominating the picture by carefully dispersing dark tones around the canvas, drawing together the light and dark halves of the canvas. Bright colour is used with utmost restraint. The orange and a flower pattern on the decorative china bowl, described in hot orange, appear especially vivid in contrast with the predominantly subdued tones surrounding them. The formal components of The Black Bottle are thoughtfully balanced, leading the eye from one object to the next, and pulling the painting together into a harmonious – and strikingly modern - still life.
Peploe painted the items in this homely scene on one other occasion; a smaller canvas of the same title, executed in the same year, now in the collection of the National Galleries of Scotland. Both works date from a significant time for Peploe: despite being amongst his earliest works, both paintings possess a maturity of style and sophistication that one can argue was never eclipsed. As Stanley Curister, an early biographer of Peploe and later Director of the National Galleries of Scotland, has written, ‘Some of the still-life paintings of this period are particularly fine, including a series of variations on the theme of a table with a white cloth and accessories suggesting ‘after lunch’ or ‘after dinner’, wine bottles, glasses, fruit, and coffee cups are the main ingredients with occasionally a piece of silver or a flower in a glass, but it is in the rare quality of colour and the brilliance of the technique that these pictures hold a distinctive place’ (S. Cursiter, Peploe; An Intimate Memoir of an Artist and of his Work, London, 1947, p. 18).
Peploe’s brother-in-law, Frederick Porter, gave a description of the artist at work that confirms the importance Peploe placed on the painterly gesture. ‘With a rapid sweep of his brush he drew the curve, but it was not right. Again he tried, and I remember that six attempts were made before he was satisfied. For here, as in all his pictures, the final result must show no ambiguity. It had to be accomplished without any signs of hesitancy or weakness in the technique. Every stroke must have a meaning to express what it was intended to express’ (T.J. Honeyman, Three Scottish Colourists, London, 1950, p. 56).
By the time The Black Bottle was painted, however, Peploe’s burgeoning interest in Impressionism had not eclipsed the traces of significant influences of earlier years. Whistler in particular was the artist who first captured the imagination of Peploe and his Scottish Colourist contemporaries. They would have been familiar with his advanced ideas through the influence that he had on their artistic predecessors, the Glasgow Boys, and from the proliferation of memorial exhibitions that followed his death in 1903. The importance of painting tonally, and to suggest, rather than describe, a form resonated with them. Japonisme, of which Whistler was a prominent champion, is evident in the flat colour, black outlines and strong design of The Black Bottle (albeit more subtly than Peploe’s earlier, more literal references to this movement, such as signing his work in the manner of Japanese script). It is also probable that Peploe’s understanding of white, so evident in his subtle rendering of the white table linen in The Black Bottle, owes much to his admiration for Whistler’s ‘Symphonies in White’.
In 1894 Peploe moved to Paris to study first at the Académie Julian and then the Académie Colarossi, which were popular with foreigners and offered a liberal alternative to the official École des Beaux-Arts. There, and also on a visit to Holland in 1895, he was able to carefully observe the Dutch and French still life traditions. Velázquez, Rembrandt, Hals and Manet had a particular impact on the young artist. Fergusson recalled later how ‘Peploe and I had both been to Paris where we were both impressed with the Impressionists whose works we saw in the Salle Caillebotte in the Luxembourg and Durand-Ruel's gallery. Manet and Monet were the painters who fixed our direction - in Peploe's case Manet especially.’ (J.D. Fergusson, ‘Memories of Peploe’ quoted in P. Long (ed.) The Scottish Colourists, 1900-1930, Edinburgh, 2000, p. 149).
The Caillebotte bequest mentioned by Fergusson included Manet’s 1865 work The Balcony. In her essay for the National Gallery of Scotland’s Impressionism & Scotland exhibition, Dr Francis Fowle has suggested that this work, with its ‘shallow perspective, fluid handling of paint and narrow range of colours’ would have had a ‘profound effect on the young Peploe, who at that time regarded Manet as the leading ‘Impressionist’ painter.’ (F. Fowle, exhibition catalogue, Impressionism and Scotland, Edinburgh, National Gallery of Scotland, 2009, p. 77). Indeed, The Black Bottle echoes its limited palette and finely balanced distribution of tones. Peploe’s still lifes of this period, including The Black Bottle, were painted using the method favoured by Manet, who had rebelled against the academic practice of systematically adding layers of paint to a dark ground. Manet instead began with a white ground and would paint the light areas first, before adding the darks and half-tones, all while the paint remained wet. This technique helped allow a painting to retain its freshness, and gave each sweeping, feathery brushstroke a radical independence.
Peploe returned from France to his Edinburgh studio with reproductions of works by Hals and Rembrandt, which were pinned to his studio walls alongside reproductions of works by Manet. This was highly characteristic of the way in which his artistic education arose largely from the work he saw around him. T.J. Honeyman observed that ‘he was constantly on the search, always learning, and if he felt moved to ‘test’ a new line of approach, not even the advantages of a sure and certain patronage would hold him back.’ (T.J. Honeyman, op. cit., p. 52).
Despite the free and fluid handling of his medium, descriptions of Peploe by those who knew him well testify to his fastidious working method. Fergusson, for instance, greatly admired Peploe’s integrity. ‘In his painting,’ he later recalled, ‘and in everything, he tried … to find the essentials by persistent trial. He worked all the time from nature but never imitated it.’ (J.D. Fergusson, ‘Memories of Peploe’ quoted in P. Long (ed.) op. cit., p. 151.) Frederick Porter, meanwhile, remembered his meticulous approach: ‘All his still lifes were carefully arranged and considered before he put them onto the canvas. When this was done - it often took several days to accomplish - he seemed to have absorbed everything necessary for transmitting them to canvas. The result was a canvas covered without any apparent effort. If a certain touch was wrong it was soon obliterated by the palette knife. The whole canvas has to be finished in one painting session so as to preserve complete continuity. If, in his judgement, it was not right then the whole painting was scraped out and painted again' (F.P. Porter, quoted in op. cit., p. 16).
The pleasure that Peploe took in painting still lifes never left him, and throughout his career he continued to use the form to exercise his painterly curiosity. ‘There is so much,’ he said in 1929, ‘in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what not - colours, forms, relation - I can never see [the] mystery coming to an end’ (S.J. Peploe in S. Cursiter, op. cit., p. 73).
The previous owner of The Black Bottle was Robert Wemyss Honeyman (1884-1969), an East Coast Scottish industrialist, who owned the Fife Silk Mills and Dunfermline Linen Company. He was also a member of the committee for the Museum and Art Gallery in Kirkcaldy, and his outstanding collection of works by Scottish artists, in particular Peploe, were sold at Christie's, Glasgow in June 1979.