In the summer of 1885, Lavery found himself the centre of attention among the painters of the Glasgow School. James Guthrie, Arthur Melville and Edward Arthur Walton all came to visit him at Cartbank while he was painting The Tennis Party, (Aberdeen Art Gallery). Although the language of Salon naturalism was well understood, Lavery was pushing at the boundaries, and his self-assurance surpassed that of his fellows. His sophisticated sense of spatial orchestration and naturalistic colour, combined with acute observation of the significant moment in the action separated him immediately from the more conventional Bastien-Lepage derived subject matter of Guthrie and Walton. Lavery's painting was much discussed even though it was not to be submitted for exhibition until the following year.
The ambition of his major work spilled over into smaller 'tennis' pictures and into the present work. Indeed, with The Goose Girls, the more formulaic aspects of his style and subject matter, acquired in the previous two years at Grez-sur-Loing, are applied in a more confident way. Lavery had gone to Paris, then recognized as 'the capital of art', in 1881, and was immediately exposed to a dizzying array of new styles. The salon welcomed foreign exhibitors and there were numerous small artists' societies and art dealers. The debates within French painting placed classicists working in the manner of Puvis de Chavannes in one camp and the plein-air naturalist followers of Jules Bastien-Lepage in another. Of the two, the latter tendency held the greatest appeal and this was confirmed by the group of American, Scandinavian, British and Irish painters Lavery met at Grez-sur-Loing in the summer of 1883. Popular costume-piece potboilers were now abandoned for more avant-garde renditions of daily life in the village community. Such was the enthusiasm for his new manner that he resolved to give up the atelier Julian at Christmas and return to the artists' colony for an extended period at the beginning of the following year. Lavery had begun, and presumably left unfinished his large canvas, The Bridge at Grez, (private collection) - but this was a summer picture that could not be tackled again until the middle of 1884. His first major work, La Rentrée des Chevres, (National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin), a winter landscape with an old peasant rounding up his goats was destined for the Salon of that year. In this, as in On the Loing, An Afternoon Chat (Under the Cherry Tree), 1884, (Ulster Museum, Belfast), great care is taken over the rendering of the foreground details - the equivalent handling of the dead leaves on the path in front of the spectator in The Goose Girls. However, while in the work of 1884, this is roughly impasted, in the present example the carpet of autumn leaves covering the path by the river, over which we might walk, is painted without scumbling.
Instinctively Lavery had grasped the central tenets of Bastien-Lepage, that a painting should represent lived experience; it should simulate an encounter; it should address the material texture of life. Bastien accomplished this in works like Pas Méche, 1882, (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), by implying an exchange of words between the subject, a cheeky barge-boy, and the spectator. Elsewhere in Le Pére Jacques, 1882, (Milwaukee Art Centre), Bastien brought the viewer face-to-face, in the depths of the forest, with a heavily-laden woodman who comes periliously close.
In The Goose Girls we are confronted in a gentler way. Our progress along the country path is arrested by four geese. All around us are the vivid colours of autumn. Sunlit foliage is set against the paler, blue greens of the distance, as in On the Loing, An Afternoon Chat, a work which Lavery had shown in the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts early in 1885. Although this river is humbler than the Loing, its sweep provides the spatial structure of the composition. The sensation of depth is accentuated by the treatment of dead leaves on the path and by the powerful modelling of the geese while the girls in the middle distance, by contrast, are handled in a more summary way. Lavery's confidence in assembling the essential properties of the mise-en-scène is what immediately impresses the viewer. Perspectival delineation, is no longer in evidence, and colour alone, applied in an almost impressionistic manner, carries the sense of recession.
Lavery was already beginning to ease away from the 'broad and systematic' touch that had been taken up with enthusiasm by the other Glasgow painters, in response to Bastien-Lepage. Indeed it is this which distinguishes The Goose Girls from To Pastures New, 1883, (fig. 1, Aberdeen Art Gallery), Guthrie's thesis picture in the new manner. In Guthrie, the flock of geese forms a frieze as it progresses across the picture plane. The simplicity of his composition helps to create a striking and memorable effect - one that was reprised by later painters like William Page Atkinson Wells and Stanley Royle. If anything, Lavery took his cue from even earlier works like Melville's Homeward, 1880 (City Art Centre, Edinburgh) and Guthrie's The Pedlar, 1881 (private collection), both of which have centralized compositions. However, it is more possible that Lavery was influenced by Louis Welden Hawkins' La Paysanne et les Oises, (unlocated) shown at the celebrated 'Grez' salon on 1882. Lavery got to know Hawkins and recalled that he devised an ingenious way of attracting interest in his work, by posing as a collector and asking to see it when he visited dealers in Paris. He would have recognized the degree to which Hawkins had pulled away from his teachers, because La Paysanne et les Oises contained, according to one critic, 'not an atom' of Bouguereau, Lefèbvre and Boulanger, but attested 'to the effect produced by MM Puvis de Chavannes and Bastien-Lepage'. These were the artists who were most admired by the British and Irish student contingent.
Later English painters like Henry Herbert La Thangue in The Water-Plash, 1900, (Victoria Art Gallery, Bath) and William Lee Hankey, in The Goose Girl, c. 1910 (fig. 2, sold Christie's, 27 November 2002, lot 28) were of course to handle the subject in more flamboyant or decorative ways. However, Lavery's superb rendering of The Goose Girls presents us with an authentic set of circumstances that, despite the tour of past and future treatments of the theme, might almost be regarded as a page torn from life itself. The shy children maintain a respectful distance. The elder girl has an infant in her charge, and the young one stands back and apprehensively puts her thumb to her mouth, just as a child of her age would do.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.