One of the outstanding characteristics of Cayley Robinson as an artist is his tendancy to paint variations on a theme, often with only slight differences between them. To Pastures New - or Dawn as the picture is sometimes called because the pioneers are setting out to find the eponymous pastures in the early morning - belongs to just such a 'sequence of paintings', as MaryAnne Stevens points out in her valuable account of Robinson's career published in 1977.
The original version seems to be the one exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists in 1898 and illustrated in the 'Record' of that year's British art published as an Extra Winter Number of the Studio magazine (p. 21). Another version followed in 1904 and was shown at the same venue. It too was reproduced in the Studio (vol. 31, p. 239) and Stevens illustrates it again in her article (p. 27, fig. 6), evidently taking the photograph from the Studio since she observes that in 1977 the picture itself was missing.
It would be satisfying if our picture, which turned up subsequently and is dated 1904, as well as being in the 'right' medium (the RBA picture of that year was in 'tempera'), was the lost work, but comparison of the two images shows that, although the differences are small, this was not the case. In fact, confusingly enough, our picture is in some ways closer to the earlier version of 1898, reproducing such features as the three flying birds and the small flock of sheep in the boat that occurred there but were absent from the missing work of 1904.
Born at Brentford-on-Thames, Robinson would have been aware of ships from his earliest days. By 1888, when he graduated from the Royal Academy Schools, he himself was a keen sailor, and during the next few years he spent much of his time sailing round the English coast. Later he would settle for short periods in three Cornish seaside resorts popular with artists, Newlyn, Lamorna and St Ives.
These experiences found echoes in his work until the end of his life. His earliest shipping subjects, dating from about 1888 to 1890, were in a naturalistic idiom which shows that, like so many artists of his generation, he was open to the influence of Bastien-Lepage. But his obsession with nautical themes survived his dramatic change of style in the 1890s. This came about, as it were, in two stages. From 1891 to 1894 he attended the Académie Julian in Paris and learnt to appreciate Burne-Jones, then enjoying a vogue in the French capital as a result of the appearance of King Cophetua (Tate Britain) at the Exposition Universelle of 1889. Then from 1898 to 1902 he lived in Florence, studying the work of Giotto, Mantegna and Michelangelo and experimenting with the tempera technique. All this produced the flat, schematic, light-toned style for which he is chiefly known and of which To Pastures New is a highly characteristic example.
The composition is indebted to The Poor Fisherman, perhaps the single most famous work by Pierre Puvis de Chavannes, of which the prime version (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) dates from 1881. As MaryAnne Stevens points out, long before Robinson went to Paris, Puvis' work was being championed by the critic Claude Phillips in the Magazine of Art, an article of 1885 focussing attention on the Pauvre Pêcheur. And when Robinson got to Paris in 1891, he would have found himself among a group of students who were all great admirers of the French master. In fact his exposure to Puvis lasted for many years. Robinson had another spell of living in Paris in 1902-6, while back in London the Studio, which by now was illustrating his own work, would often follow Phillips' lead and feature that of Puvis.
To Pastures New is particularly interesting in this context. Its general style - the firm outlines, the areas of flat colour, the pale tonality, not to mention the timeless theme and mood - all betray the impact of what Stevens calls Puvis' 'blond "mock-fresco" pictures'. But this could be said of many of Robinson's works. What is unusual here is that his passion for boating subjects has led him to borrow a whole range of specific motifs, the boat, its reflection in the water, the mast and the wavy shore-line all echoing Puvis' masterpiece.