Following his first Provençal foray (see lot 92) La Thangue spent increasing amounts of time in the region, eventually establishing a studio in the picturesque village of Bormes-les-Mimosas. Information about his activities, other than that found in his paintings is sparse. Often the precise locations in which he painted seem tantalizingly close although they remain unidentified. This is the case with A Provençal Forge, and many other village scenes of the 1920s.
At the time of his solo Leicester Galleries exhibition in 1914, La Thangue had produced an impressive body of Impressionist landscapes that Walter Sickert compared favourably with the work of Monet and Cezanne.1 These complemented the figure-pieces he submitted to the Royal Academy, one of which, Violets for Perfume, became his Diploma work in that year. It was only after the Great War that he began to enter and explore the hill and coastal settlements, painting a sequence of street scenes which often feature fountains and watering troughs in and around Bormes, Grasse and St Jeannet, and the fishing port of St Tropez. The local peasantry, renowned for its tolerance of artists, had, according to Ford Madox Ford, inherited a tradition that 'occupation with one art or other is a proper thing for sound men' and would maintain its distance.2
A Provençal Forge is among the first statements of this new theme and it is in some senses, the definitive example. The painter looks out from the foreground shade across a street, deserted but for the flock of hens, pecking their way out into the sunlight. Only a blacksmith observes the painter from the doorway of his forge on the far side of the square. On the right, parched trees shade his shop, while to the left is the basin of a public fountain. One of the focal points of these villages, fountains regularly reappear in his work - in Fountain in a Provençal Village, (circa 1920, unlocated) for instance - a canvas probably painted at the same time as the present picture, and possibly in the same location.
In the later 1920s La Thangue would seek out situations of this kind - exhibiting A Provencal Fountain, in 1922 (Manchester City Art Galleries) and producing the treeless A Village Fountain, c. 1925 (Te Puna O Waiwhetu, Christchurch Art Gallery, New Zealand) shortly thereafter.
In all, the human presence does not intrude; the streets are deserted save for a woman filling her jar. In a secular age, the village fountain was equivalent to a wayside shrine. Other treatments of the theme followed, but few are so satisfying as A Provençal Forge. Few painters could take this humble setting in strong afternoon sunshine, and by scattering it with errant hens, transform it into an epiphany.