By the end of July 1887 Goupil and Co had successfully placed George Clausen's painting of woodcutters, The End of a Winter's Day, with Roland Knoedler's dealership in New York. The picture, a Grosvenor Gallery exhibit, showing an old man and boy returning heavily laden from the woods at dusk, was highly praised.1 A year later the request came for a further picture, this time showing men planting a tree. Clausen immediately started planning a composition in which three figures, ranged parallel to the picture plane are working to the rear of farm buildings. This highly satisfactory arrangement to some extent emulates Jean-François Millet's Le Greffeur of 1855 (Private Collection, USA) a picture showing a peasant grafting a fruit tree close to his rustic homestead, watched over by his wife and baby. A visual connection was established immediately between human fertility and arboreal husbandry. Although Clausen increasingly admired Millet's work, it was that of an earlier generation, more tolerant of obvious sentimentality.2
Modern representations of fieldworkers by his contemporaries, eschewed Millet's old master tonalities in favour of documentary accuracy. In Clausen's case the passive observer has become a man leaning on his spade, rather than a mother and child. On the right, an old rustic in a smock holds the sapling, while a boy wearing a vivid red scarf covers the roots with soil. It is an everyday event of no special significance. Eight years earlier, when he encountered the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, Clausen had been among the first to realize that sentiment, if present at all, should emerge from the simulation of a real life encounter and, as he wrote in 1888, figures should be 'placed before us in the most satisfying completeness, without the appearance of artifice, but as they live: and without comment, as far as possible on the author's part'.3 The simplest of programmes therefore, guided the conception of Planting a Tree, from the present study to its final completion.
In an intermediate drawing (Royal Academy of Arts, London) Clausen dispensed with the background figure. While their positions were unaltered in the final canvas, the man on the right is younger and now holds a spade. However, the most dramatic alteration is to the setting. Farm buildings have been replaced by an open landscape in which spatial transitions from foreground to background are carefully managed (1888, Private Collection).4
As we might expect, a greater speed and shorthand characterizes the oil sketch. Indeed the subsequent alterations to setting and figures place it at some distance from the larger work. In this sense, it can almost be considered as an independent version of the subject. In an exciting way, it demonstrates a thought process. It lengthens the human chain from boy to man, to old man, taking its cue from The End of a Winter's Day. It also reminds us that nature in the fertile fields of Berkshire, must be managed, and that planting in the right place, for the rustic, was as important as thinning and cutting.
1 For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen, RA, 1852-1944, 1980 (exhibition catalogue, Bradford and Tyne and Wear Museums), pp. 35-7. The picture, shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in 1885, was entered in Goupil's stock book on 29 March 1887 and was sold to Knoedler four months later on 20 July. Knoedler's client, the eventual owner and present location of The End of a Winter's Day, remain obscure.
2 Around this time the painter acquired a series of etchings and prints after Millet's work.
3 George Clausen, 'Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism', Scottish Art Review, vol 1, 1888, p. 114.
4 Planting a Tree was sold Sotheby's 11 December 2007. Clausen's account book and the Goupil stock book indicate that the picture was delivered on 29 December 1888.