In the summer of 1883, with fellow-student, James Havard Thomas, Henry Herbert La Thangue fled the noise and heat of the Paris ateliers and headed south on the Paris-Lyon-Mediterrané (PLM) train stopping short of Marseilles. Disembarking in the Rhone Valley, they explored the Dauphiné on foot, perhaps hoping to discover a retreat equivalent to those in Brittany which La Thangue visited in previous summers with Stanhope Forbes. Painters had not ventured much further than Fontainbleau before, and having witnessed the successes of William Stott of Oldham and Frank O'Meara at the Salon of 1882, with pictures painted en plein air in the village of Gres-sur-Loing, La Thangue was looking for similar experiences. In the following two years, he would return to the banks of the Rhone, making the village of Donzère his base, and painting a number of interiors of which Poverty and A Poor French Family, (both 1884) were the most notable.1 He then embarked on In the Dauphiné (fig. 1), the canvas which was to make his reputation at the first New English Art Club exhibition in 1886.2 This plein air thesis-picture was to become the most controversial painting of the year, dividing friends, colleagues and Academicians alike.
Thereafter La Thangue focussed upon purely English scenes, painting in the Norfolk Broads and on the Sussex coast, before settling at Graffham, near Petworth (see lot 120).3 Elected Associate of the Royal Academy in 1898, his success in these years was nevertheless laced with dissatisfaction at the decline of agricultural communities, and in 1901, recalling the idyllic experiences of his youth, he returned to southern France.4
A Provençal Farm is the principal product of what turned out to be a life-changing experience. The cool sunlight of upland pastures thrilled him and, in a group of randomly-positioned mountain goats near a cluster of farm buildings, he rediscovered a classic composition. Only the gentle tinkle of the goats' bells break the silence. La Thangue had found his ideal microcosm in which nature, animals and mankind were acting in harmony. As J. Stanley Little noted in 1904,
'Mr La Thangue has done for Provence what he has done for Sussex ... He has given us ... in a form that will always give delight to the aesthete ... such subjects as goat herding, orange growing, the culture of the violet ... Such work as this is surely deserving of the highest honour'.5
Looking at the present work, The Speaker senses these eternal truths. Nature was 'golden and glowing'. Colour was regarded as a strong point in the columns of the normally hostile Athenaeum, and his harmonies were seen to be 'becoming purer and more transparent'. He was also creating 'the illusion of sunlight' by introducing 'purple into the shadows'.6 At the same time, A Provençal Farm was a classic La Thangue composition. In a number of previous cases the painter had introduced a shepherd or fieldworker as the focal point, taking the eye over a flock of geese or a group of cattle to a figure at the apex of the composition. This spatial strategy found its clearest expression in The Water-plash, 1900 (fig. 2, Victoria Art Gallery, Bath). In a number of instances up to that point La Thangue had accentuated the effect of an actual encounter with field-workers by placing them on a slight incline, leading the viewer up to the hillside to the horizon in works like The Return of the Reapers, 1886 (fig. 3, Tate Britain).
'Mapping the foreground and middle distance in this way achieved a most satisfactory resolution in the present work, provoking The Speaker to conclude that and '... Mr La Thangue's countryside is but a very small passage from the countryside; beyond the near horizon there might equally well be a cliff or a plain .... It was merely a setting for the frankly human interest ... one does not guess that, whilst a landscapist of some cleverness, he is a figure painter of more feeling'.7
The general approval for this new departure led the painter to return to Provence for longer periods each year and eventually he established a studio at Bormes-les Mimosas. By 1905 one reviewer noted that:
'He delights in the brilliant lights and reflections of southern climes and has developed the positive method to meet these aspects ... so that his pictures can be recognised at a glance ... It is not the flicker of sunlight that we see, but rather of a biograph [a film projector] and we long to set the machine in movement, so as to justify the action which has been arrested in a kind of unstable equilibrium'.8
La Thangue was not interested in classical repose. His scenes were like frames selected from a cinematograph and this was especially true for depictions of flower growers collecting blossoms for the perfume factory at Grasse, a motif which became the theme of his Diploma picture at the Royal Academy in 1914.
By the 1920s Provence not only provided much of his subject matter, but it also gave the painter a base for forays into Brescia and Liguria as well as to Catalonia and the more distant regions of Spain and Majorca. In each instance, topography is less important than the small, but significant 'passage from the countryside'. A Provençal Farm announced this change of location with its attendant effect on palette and composition, recalled by The Academy reviewer as 'a pleasure to the eye ... the tenderness and warmth of low roofs and the orange tree ... are all fragrant in the memory'.9
1. For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, A Painter's Harvest, HH La Thangue, 1859-1929, 1978, (exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery), pp. 8-9, 20.
2. Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club, 2006 (Royal Academy Publications), p. 32-3.
3. La Thangue lived and worked in Norfolk until 1890, when he moved to Bosham, near Chichester. There he remained until 1898 when he moved to Graffham.
4. He famously complained to Alfred Munnings on one occasion that he could no longer find a 'quiet old world village' in England, see McConkey 1978, p. 13.
5. J Stanley Little, 'Henry Herbert La Thangue ARA', Magazine of Art, 1904, p. 6.
6. The Athenaeum, 24 May 1902, p. 665; The Speaker, 24 May 1902, p. 218.
8. The Academy, 6 May 1905, pp. 498-9.
9. The Academy, 10 May 1902, p. 488.