Samuel John Peploe, the most famous of the Scottish Colourists, is best known for his powerful still lifes, which combine the elements of Post-impressionism, Fauvism and Cubism. He had a particular affinity for this subject matter and with masterful technique was able to re-interpret the great French traditions of Cézanne and Manet and produce works which remained relevant to the modern tradition well into the second quarter of the 20th century.
Cézanne’s work Nature morte aux fruits et pot de gingembre is a useful reference point to see how far Peploe was able to develop the ideas into a work of such strength. Peploe’s high regard for the work of Cézanne is abundantly clear but with Melon and Pears we find a truly modern painting, which brings 1920s techniques and sensibilities to a post-impressionist subject matter. Form is delineated with black lines in a similar fashion to Cézanne’s technique but the fruit has an even greater three-dimensionality, the brushstrokes an even greater sense of purpose and the clarity of colour and light, literally outshine Cézanne’s interpretation.
The background cloth was a device used effectively by Cézanne in many of his still life paintings but with Peploe the abstract qualities of this background add a whole new dimension. His clever use of a multitude of angular almost cubist facets, simulating a dark cavern-like backdrop, creates a particularly unified composition, which draws the eye forwards and backwards in and out of the foreground in an examination of all of the elements of the composition; the fruit, the napkin, the table surface and the background cloth.
Peploe’s path from Edinburgh-born son of a banker to successful professional artist is one that was mirrored by many young artists brought up in the late 19th century, somewhat distanced from the more avant-garde centres of the art world. In the 1890s Peploe attended courses at the Académie Julian and Académie Colarossi in Paris, the leading schools in France, which were attracting aspiring young artists from around the world. His studies there were supplemented by courses at the Royal Scottish Academy but the new ideas, luminous skies and excitement of Paris would prove to be a strong pull which saw him spend many years over the next twenty years divided between his native Scotland and his adopted France.
His style changed over the decades, moving from the charming interpretations of the Dutch masters of the 17th Century, including Rembrandt and Frans Hals, through works inspired by the Post-impressionists, Fauves and Cubists. Sometimes he was influenced by exhibitions. He was probably one of the first British artists to witness and respond to the avant-garde work being produced by Picasso, Matisse and Derain as a fellow exhibitor at the 1909 Salon d'Automne. On other occasions it was a change of scene such as in 1905, when he moved into Henry Raeburn’s Edinburgh studio, built in 1795 for the Scottish master. The change in his painting style was immediate and dramatic. Inspired by the bright light and able to make the most of the purpose-built space he started using larger canvases with lighter paints and a resultant looser style.
Towards the end of the First World War Peploe’s style changed again developing into the period into which Melon and Pears is placed. Flowers were replaced by pottery plates and bowls, fruit and an assemblage of rustic items. This ‘rustic’ period was matched by a thickening of the paint and broader brushstrokes.
Peploe never tired of his passion, painting. In 1929, he wrote: "There is so much in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what not – colours, forms, relation – I can never see mystery coming to an end" (letter written by Samuel John Peploe, quoted in Stanley Cursiter, Peploe; An Intimate Memoir of an Artist and of His Work, 1947, p. 73).