The Black Bottle is one of the best-known paintings from the artist's early period. It is a subject which he painted on two occasions; the other example, a smaller canvas (20 x 24 in.) is in the collection of the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh.
The present composition dates from circa 1905, the year that Peploe moved his studio from Devon Place to York Place in Edinburgh. Significantly perhaps, the studio had previously belonged to the great eighteenth-century Scottish portraitist Sir Henry Raeburn, R.A.
Peploe's earliest biographer, his friend and fellow painter, Stanley Cursiter, analysed the artist's approach at this date, 'His technique broadened and he adopted a medium which gave a still richer surface and which appeared to hold the brush marks with a still fuller body of paint. It has been suggested that he actually used some form of enamel, as the pigment takes on the smooth creamy quality and the flowing texture that an enamel would produce, but the actual paint is more solid, and it would not seem possible to build up the full impasto which he secured with any of the commercial types of enamel. It is more probably that his medium contained large proportion of stand oil with some addition of varnish. Whatever it was, it has a very pleasing quality, slightly translucent, preserving the colour at a high pitch while avoiding a too pronounced glitter or shine. Some of the still-life paintings of this period are particularly fine, including a series of variations on the theme of a table with a white cloth and accessories suggesting "after lunch" or "after dinner", wine bottles, glasses, fruit, and coffee cups are the main ingredients with occasionally a piece of silver or a flower in a glass, but it is in the rare quality of colour and the brilliance of the technique that these pictures hold a distinctive place' (see S. Cursiter, op cit., p. 18).
Writing in the exhibition catalogue for Scottish Art since 1900 (Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, 1989, pp. 13,14), Keith Hartley comments, 'the general influence at this time came from Whistler and Manet. Both Fergusson and Peploe were Edinburgh men and both attended the 'free' academies in Paris in the mid-1890s. In Edinburgh they could both see works by Whistler shown regularly at the Scottish Academy, particularly in 1904 when twenty five paintings were included as a memorial tribute ... Whistler had been an important influence of several of the Glasgow Boys ... so it was natural for Peploe to be drawn to the tonal harmonies and free brushwork of Whistler. Peploe's debt was less than Fergusson's. He was more interested in the deft brushwork and fluent paint of Manet, to whom he came via an early enthusiasm for Frans Hals. Portraits such as The Green Blouse c.1905 still have a strong Dutch feel about them, with their more sombre colouring, but The Black Bottle reflects his growing interest in Impressionism ... brushstrokes no longer define objects so much as suggest them, while retaining an independent existence of their own'. The works of Frans Hals, whose use of strong contrasts of dark and light, such as Verdonck and A Dutch Gentleman, both in the collection of the National Gallery of Scotland in Edinburgh would have been known to Peploe. Stanley Cursiter writes that after visiting Holland in 1895, Peploe returned with reproductions of works by Hals and Rembrandt which were pinned to his studio walls alongside reproductions of works by Manet.
Discussing the similar version in the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Patrick Elliott (A Companion Guide to the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art, Edinburgh, 1999, p. 90) explains, 'Peploe was born in Edinburgh and studied in Paris. As The Black Bottle indicates, Peploe was not immediately drawn to the bland tonalities of French Impressionist art, or to the clashing colours of Post-Impressionism or Fauvism. Bold unmodulated colour only became a feature of his art around 1910. Instead this kind of tonal painting and the rich, creamy brushwork have their origin in the work of Manet and John Singer Sargent; there is even a parallel with the eighteenth-century portraitist Raeburn'.
Dr Tom J. Honeyman (1891-1971), the former owner of the present work, collected one of the most significant collections of modern Scottish paintings. Having trained as a medical doctor, Honeyman changed direction in 1928 to become a partner in the art dealers Reid & Lefevre, initially managing the Glasgow gallery. He was close to the Scottish Colourists and wrote about them in numerous journals and publications including Three Scottish Colourists (1950) which examined the work of Peploe, Hunter and Cadell, as well writing Peploe's obituary in The Scotsman.