If any single painting could be advanced to prove the new Francophile allegiances of young British painters of the 1880s it would surely be this one.1 Known hitherto only through an illustration reproduced in the Pall Mall Gazette 'Extra', (fig. 1), In the Dauphiné has nevertheless been extensively discussed.2 Not only was Henry Herbert La Thangue's work painted in France, but its subject matter, peasants of the Rhône valley, painted life-size, in a broad 'square brush' style, was widely, if not entirely accurately, regarded as a replication of the mannerisms of current French naturalist painters who followed Jules Bastien-Lepage.3
Exhibiting what was described as a 'Sketch of Toiling Peasants' at the first New English Art Club exhibition in 1886, La Thangue was closely identified with this alien tendency, and the exhibition was taken as the first concerted demonstration of its power and presence. An old genre, associated particularly with the realists of the mid-century - paysanneries, or 'peasantries' - as purveyed by Jean-François Millet and Jules Breton, accentuated the idyllic aspects of the peasant's labour.4 By 1875, the time of Millet's death, however, his work had begun to seem old-masterish, even though it provided the first visual prototypes for In the Dauphiné.5 Rising stars of the 1870s like Bastien-Lepage, recognizing Millet's continuing popularity with collectors, sought to breathe new life into this type of painting. Often presented as revolutionary, this new painting contained powerful modernizing attitudes which encouraged the rejection of the commercial classicism of Bouguereau and Gérôme. Ministers of state for the fine arts, reacting to fears of urban insurrection, increasingly supported art production that explicitly referred to the healthy, outdoor values implied in images of contemporary rural life. France remained predominantly an agrarian economy and the horrors of the siege of Paris and the commune, associated with the modern metropolis, were still vividly remembered in the early days of the Third Republic. Many of Bastien-Lepage's rural naturalist contemporaries, like Ulysse Butin, Julien Dupré, Dagnan-Bouveret and Léon Lhermitte, taking their cue from his challenging Les Foins, 1878 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), were fêted with medals at the Paris Salon and state purchases. At the same time the Impressionists, whose exhibitions commenced in 1874 and continued throughout this period, conducted their enterprise amidst a flurry of rhetoric concerning 'modernity'.
Paris, despite its recent redevelopment, retained the romantic aura popularly associated with Mürger and la vie de bôhème and for young painters like La Thangue, rural naturalism represented modern art. The international prestige of French art training, and the relative impoverishment of art education in Britain, however, provided the most immediate and unavoidable reason to go there. When La Thangue won the Royal Academy Schools' gold medal in 1879, Frederic Leighton, the Academy's President, recognizing the trend, armed him with a letter of introduction to Jean-Léon Gérôme, at the Ecole des Beaux Arts, where he enrolled in January 1880.
La Thangue instantly found himself in a thriving milieu, surrounded by American, Scandinavian, Eastern European, and French students, that included, during the early 1880s young British painters like John Lavery, Stanhope Forbes, Arthur Hacker, Arthur Melville, William Stott of Oldham and others. While working from the life model, he witnessed the unveiling to the public of dramatic canvases like Julien Dupré's Faucheurs de Luzerne, (fig. 2, Sénat, Paris), Bastien-Lepage's Le Mendiant, (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen) and Lhermitte's La Paye des Moissonneurs (Musée d'Orsay, Paris) shown at the Salons of 1880, 1881 and 1882 respectively.6 The future lay with such painting and to attain it, there was no alternative than to experience rural life at first hand. It was this impetus which was leading to the establishment of rural colonies and led to La Thangue's visits to Cancale and Quimperlé in the summers of 1881 and 1882. Here he produced Study in a Boat Building Yard on the French Coast, 1882 (National Maritime Museum), and other notable canvases.7
The following summer, concluding that the Breton coastline was too popular, La Thangue made his first expedition to the Rhône valley, stopping at the village of Donzère, equidistant between Valence and Avignon. This area, the Dauphiné, became his new summer haunt, although at first he appears to have only painted interiors such as Poverty, 1883 (fig. 3, private collection).8 It was evident that in such works, La Thangue was looking for harsher realities than those found by his colleagues on the coast. Here he conceived In the Dauphiné, his most ambitious canvas to date.
In this, peasants, at mid-day, have temporarily left their labours, to rest at the edge of the field and have their lunch. The monumental harvester in the foreground, carries his scythe over his shoulder. Like Dupré's faucheur he wears a straw hat to protect his head from the sun, a stout white shirt with a yoke construction and pleated sleeves and patched blue trousers - common French field worker's clothing at the period.9 His female companion, carrying a lunch basket, wears a white apron over a pale blue skirt, a simple buttoned tunic, and a head scarf. There is no archaizing here. What might, in other hands, be treated as an ennobling motif, is rendered with strict accuracy. Unlike earlier treatments of the subject, La Thangue's harvesters are seen against a backdrop of fields and buildings rather than sky. This would be in accord with our eye level, were we to be standing opposite them. For Bastien-Lepage this was an essential badge of authenticity and a way of simulating a real life encounter.10 It is the salient feature of Pas Mèche, (National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), a work shown in London in 1882, and l'Amour au Village, 1882 (fig. 4, Pushkin Museum, Moscow), his Salon painting of that year.11
Perhaps the most important antecedent, which ties In the Dauphiné firmly to French practice, was Lhermitte's La Moisson, (fig. 5, University of Washington, St Louis) shown at the Salon of 1883 and purchased in 1885 by Isaac Smith J.P., a northern industrialist and later mayor of Bradford.12 While Bastien-Lepage's Les Foins, 1878 (Musée d'Orsay, Paris), can be said to show the labourers resting at mid-day, after they have eaten, this monumental work illustrates the moment prior to that depicted by La Thangue. The heroic harvester wipes his brow and calls for a break from his labours. That such a canvas could have been seen by the members of the progressive art collecting circle in Bradford, and with whom La Thangue was involved, is significant.13
There was at the same time an implied symbolic context for representations of men with scythes. In 1859, Millet had exhibited his Death and the Woodcutter (Ny Carlsberg Glyptotek, Copenhagen) at the Salon. This took the familiar tale from the Fables of La Fontaine and cast it into contemporary terms. 'Death' was seen as a man with a scythe, and the cutting of ripe corn, a metaphor for human mortality.14 The theme was reworked consistently by Alphonse Legros, Slade Professor of Fine Art, in etchings and in an important oil version, (National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa), painted in 1878, in the years when La Thangue was a student. It was in these terms that the symbolic reaper was translated into Britain, and as such he later re-appeared in La Thangue's Chantrey purchase, The Man with the Scythe, 1896 (Tate Britain).15 None of this latent symbolism is apparent in In the Dauphiné. If anything, more apposite comparisons could be found elsewhere. In an idyllic vein, for instance, British painters following Millet and Breton had represented happy harvesters with scythes returning from the fields at twilight. The Virgilian swains in George Heming Mason's The Harvest Moon, 1872 (Tate Britain) are slowly transformed in George Wetherbee's Harvest Moon, 1881 (fig. 6, Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne), but neither of these earlier works prepares us for the shock of In the Dauphiné.
This bold manifesto-statement was brought up from the depths of rural France to be shown at the first exhibition of a new society. By the time it went on show at the Marlborough Gallery in April 1886, the New English Art Club had already courted controversy. Martin Colnaghi, who had promised his gallery for the exhibition, withdrew his offer when he saw Henry Scott Tuke's The Bathers, (unlocated), a picture of the type which became Tuke's stock in trade. A new backer, W.J. Laidlay, was hastily found, and the exhibition opened at the Marlborough Gallery, so named because it was opposite Marlborough House in Pall Mall. Aside from carping critics, there was a great deal of confusion about the ambitions of the club. Some prominent members, La Thangue among them, felt that the club should bring sweeping changes to the whole art politics of the day, displacing the Royal Academy. Laidlay, fearing financial ruin, threatened to withdraw his support if the 'revolutionists' led by La Thangue, took the helm.16 Despite these internal disputes, most critics recognized that the club members were, as their catalogue stated, 'more or less united in their art sympathies', and La Thangue weathering the criticisms which greeted his large canvas, after a general meeting in May 1886, was obliged to resign. While there were general tendencies within the art on display in the first exhibition, The Saturday Review observed, 'Mr H La Thangue's In the Dauphiné is the largest, and - perhaps partly because it is unfinished - the most pronounced example of the distinguishing tendencies of the school. The touch is square, broad and systematised; and the colour high, bluish, and open-air-like, though it must be confessed, without sufficient delicacy.'17
Two points are obvious. The first is to do with technique and finish and the second relates to the 'evident preoccupation about material' which the critic noted in comparing the big La Thangue with Tuke's Bathers. With La Thangue, the square brush style was at its most extreme. He was latterly credited with leading what became known as the 'Square Brush School', which was described as a, '…technicl method which puts paint on canvas in a particular way with a square brush ... those who practice it in its simplest form leave the brush-marks and do not smooth away the evidence of method, thus sometimes insisting on the way the picture is painted, perhaps at the sacrifice of subtleties in the subject.18
There was further debate as to whether this method has actually originated in classes taught by the marine painter, James Clarke Hook, at the Royal Academy Schools.19 It was nevertheless in close accord with French methods of building up a composition in uniformly solid, opaque paint, applied with self-confidence. Walter Sickert recalling this debate in later years credited La Thangue with having adopted and developed the methods of his day in the use of 'an opaque mosaic for recording objective sensations ... in personal manner'.20 Other artists who had been to France in the early eighties employed the 'opaque mosaic', but not to the same degree. For La Thangue, as for Stanhope Forbes, Frank Bramley, Frank Brangwyn and George Clausen, it meant painting across the forms to give a sense of breadth and solidity. The brushmarks in the clothing of the harvester do not follow the fall of the fabric. Edges, to some extent are blurred, giving the sense of arrested motion. While others applied this method, they selectively 'finished' their pictures to the extent that heads and hands, the focal points in a figure composition, were painted with great detail. This is apparent from Clausen's first two New English exhibits, The Shepherdess, 1885 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool) and The Stone Pickers, 1887 (Laing Art Gallery, Newcastle upon Tyne). La Thangue understood these processes completely, and in the much less ambitious, Return of the Reapers, 1886 (fig. 7, Tate Britain), we see a higher level of finish than in the present work. In both, however, La Thangue's proccupation with what we might refer to as 'materiality' is evident. Even the glazes of the rustic water-jug, to be held above the head for drinking, as in Manet's La Régalade, 1862 (Art Institute of Chicago), are treated in such a way as to accentuate the solidity of the object.21 Such effects, dependant upon the regularity of brushstrokes, as in a Cézanne, impress ideas of three-dimensionality upon the viewer, and make the experience of La Thangue's grand 'unfinished' peasants of the Dauphiné, compelling.
After it was shown at the New English, In the Dauphiné was exhibited in the Winter Exhibition of the Arcadian Art Club in Bradford.22 La Thangue was the President of the Club, and a contemporary photograph shows the picture as the centrepiece of the Bradford exhibition. The Mitchell family, who may have acquired it before either of these shows, were also involved with the club.23 In 1887 La Thangue was commissioned to paint Abraham Mitchell, as The Connoisseur, (fig. 8, Bradford Art Galleries and Museums), with his wife, sons and daughter, in his picture gallery at 'Bowling Park' Rooley Lane, Bradford.24 Mitchell's fortune depended upon the production and sale of mohair. A good proportion of it and that of his sons, was spent on the accumulation of works of art and in La Thangue's depiction, he appears as a domineering presence.
The painter returned to the subject of harvesters in two equally monumental pictures, Travelling Harversters, 1897 (private collection) and Harvesters at Supper, 1898 (Bradford Museums and Art Galleries). In the first of these, the man with the scythe, also carrying his cooking pot, trudges towards the viewer, while in the second, the scythe has been laid down, as the group gathers round the camp-fire. Both pictures are formidable experiences, but both are trapped in sentiment. It is dusk, and these are the homeless rural poor. Like La Thangue himself by that stage, the harvesters are increasingly rootless. Neither canvas takes us out into the glare of mid-day in the val de Rhône and confronts us with what is one of the most arresting encounters produced by a British artist in final quarter of the nineteenth century.
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for providing the above catalogue entry.
1 For a fuller account of the British context in which La Thangue's work emerged, see K. McConkey, Exhibition catalogue, Impressionism in Britain, London, Barbican Art Gallery, 1995.
2 See literature above, especially, McConkey, 1978; Robins, 1986; McConkey, 1989; McConkey, 1995; Jenkins, 2000.
3 See K. McConkey, The Bouguereau of the Naturalists, Bastien-Lepage and British Art, Art History, vol. 1, no. 3, 1978, pp. 371-182; idem, 'Rustic Naturalism in Britain, in G.P. Weisberg (ed.), The European Realist Tradition, Indiana, 1982, pp. 215-28. See also G.P. Weisberg, Beyond Impressionism, The Natural Impulse, 1992.
4 K. McConkey, Exhibition catalogue, Peasantries, 19th century French and British pictures of peasants and field workers, Newcastle, Polytechnic Art Gallery, 1981.
5 In this regard we may consider a painting of a peasant couple, like Going to Work, 1851 (Glasgow Art Gallery) as an important precedent. Slightly younger contemporaries like Jules Breton extended the range of Millet's subject matter. Both produced canvases that show groups of peasants setting off for, or returning from, work in the fields. Breton's Le Depart pour les Champs, 1857 (untraced) containing a reaper, his scythe over his shoulder, and his wife and children, setting off to work, is a further example of an early working of La Thangue's theme. For further reference see A. Bourrut-Lacouture, Jules Breton, Painter of Peasant Life, Yale, 2002, p. 97.
6 These examples are chosen merely to point to a substantial, international body of work.
7 K. McConkey, 1978, fig. 3; A. Jenkins, 2000, p. 56.
8 K. McConkey, 1978, no. 3, fig. 5; At Donzère, on the banks of the Rhône, La Thangue was on the western edge of the Dauphiné region, an area to the south of the French Alps, which received its name in the fourteenth century. It was thereafter the appanage of the eldest son of the French King who henceforth bore the title 'Dauphin'.
9 See for instance, Bastien-Lepage's Faucheurs aiguisant leur faux, 1881 (private collection).
10 A. Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and his Art, A Memoir 1892, p. 73.
11 This pictorial strategy was instantly adopted by Bastien's British followers, see for instance George Clausen's Breton Girl carrying a Jar, 1882 (Victoria and Albert Museum).
12 For further reference see M. le Pelley Fonteny, Léon Lhermitte, Paris, 1991, pp. 100-01.
13 For progressive collecting in Bradford, mentioning Smith, see A. Jenkins and C. Hopper, The Connoisseur, Art Patrons and Collectors in Victorian Bradford, 1989. Smith was to acquire three important works by La Thangue, The Yeoman, 1887; Resting after the game, 1888 (both private collections); and the monumental Leaving Home, 1889-90 (formerly the Forbes Collection; sold Christie's, London, 19 February 2003, lot 19, private collection). As a collector he was in competition with Abraham Mitchell, the first owner of the present work, and John Maddocks, all three of whom were industrialists in the Bradford area.
14 K. McConkey, Dejection's Portrait: Naturalist Images of Woodcutters in Nineteenth Century Art, Arts Magazine, April 1986, pp. 81-7.
15 K. McConkey, 1978, no. 14.
16 For a more detailed account see A. Robins, 1986. Robins quotes George Bernard Shaw's remark on In the Dauphiné that 'public impatience to see the work could have been restrained pending its completion'. La Thangue did not rest with the club's decision for a moderate expansion of its membership. In 1887 and 1889 he published polemical pieces in The Magazine of Art and The Artist respectively, arguing for a new 'National Movement' based upon the principle of universal suffrage. As an exhibitor, he transferred his attentions to the Grosvenor Gallery and later, the New Gallery, returning to the Academy fold in 1891 with Clausen and Frederick Brown.
17 The Saturday Review, 17 April 1886, p. 541.
18 M. Roberts, A Colony of Artists, The Scottish Art Review, 1889, p. 72.
19 A.S. Hartrick, A Painter's Pilgrimage through Fifty Years, Cambridge, 1939, p. 28, contends that the 'square brush act' started in 1883, when Bastien-Lepage gave painting lessons to a group of British and American followers. While this might have occured, it is unlikely to be the 'origin' of the method.
20 The New Age, 7 May 1914, quoted from O. Sitwell (ed.), A Free House, Being the Writings of Walter Richard Sickert, 1947, p. 271.
21 A similar jug appears in Winter in Liguria, (lot 37).
22 For further reference see A. Jenkins and C. Hopper, 1989.
23 In this regard it is worth noting that George Clausen's The Shepherdess, 1885 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool), was also in a Bradford collection, that of John Maddocks, at the time of its showing in the first New English Exhibition.
24 For further reference see A. Jenkins and C. Hopper, 1989; see also K. McConkey, Memory and Desire, Painting in Britain and Ireland at the Turn of the Twentieth Century, Aldershot, 2002, pp. 43-7.