In a eulogy written at the time of Clausen's death F Gordon Roe stressed the painter's vision - 'he saw things anew, and expressed them with intrepid distinction'. For the painter, 'aesthetic truth' lay in the things around him rather than in grand historical exhibition pieces. This 'dangerous innovator' had 'no idea' of conventional subject matter. 'He had painted young peasant women with grimy finger-nails - this seemed very important'1.
The 'importance' of Clausen's early head studies of country folk lay not simply in their rejection of the set-piece compositions on which the Royal Academy fed, it derived from a new set of attitudes that seemed revolutionary in the 1880s. A work of art could document the most ordinary things, providing they were seen with a fresh eye, and the artist's rejection of a London studio for the fields of Childwickbury in Hertfordshire had been motivated by the wish to make contact with ordinary 'people doing simple things under good conditions of lighting'2. In this, he was encouraged by the example of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the great French rural Naturalist painter who in his repudiation of the artifices of history painting, advocated a monastic devotion to the intimate recording of a corner of the world - un coin de terre 3. For Clausen, the search for this 'corner' began in the open air, with a gang of field labourers and among his first tasks was a series of head studies that included A Woman of the Fields (Private Collection), Head of a Peasant Boy (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford) and A Woodman (unlocated) 4. Having exhausted the possibilities of Childwickbury by 1885, he and his growing family, moved to Cookham Dene in Berkshire.
There, in 1886, his wife, Agnes Mary Clausen, gave birth to their third child, and secured the services of a village girl named Mary (Polly) Baldwin as a nursemaid, part of whose duties was to act as a model for the painter 5. During this year, in addition to A Village Maiden, Polly sat for A Girl's Head, (1886, Manchester City Art Galleries) and in the following year posed for The Stone Pickers, (1887, Tyne and Wear Museums), one of Clausen's most celebrated paintings6. She remained in the family's employment throughout their years in Berkshire, returning to take centre stage as the model for The Girl at the Gate, (1889, Tate Britain) the picture controversially purchased from the Grosvenor Gallery of 1890 by the Chantrey trustees for the national collection7.
In concentrated form, A Village Maiden, demonstrates Clausen's métier. His use of square brushes, painting across the form, and 'not smooth[ing] away the evidence of method' is evident particularly in Polly's tunic, while more detailed handling is reserved for the delicate bone structure of the girl's face, habitually observed in an even light 8. In old age she recalled that when painting The Girl at the Gate, 'it always had to be a grey day [and] it took a long time if the sun came out.... ' 9. These technical features openly signified a young painter who was painting in the 'French' manner and this constituted a threat to the English School. Conservative critics were offended by the lack of idealisation in his stark representations of the rural poor, but Clausen, with the support of WE Henley, editor of The Magazine of Art, stuck to his path and defended it in the art press 10 .
Clausen's account book indicates that he painted a number of girl's heads during the spring and summer months of 1886. These vary in size. Three small works are listed as being offered to John Maddocks of Bradford at £6 each and he bought all for a total of £1511. The first specific reference is to a 'large head of Polly', possibly the Manchester picture, that passed to his dealer, Charles Deschamps in July12 . Then on 12 August, a smaller one was offered to 'Dr Emerson' for 12 guineas. It is possible therefore, that A Village Maiden is that first owned by the distinguished photographer, Peter Henry Emerson who, fascinated with the concept of Naturalism, sought Clausen's advice on the subject13.
The painting also coincides with one other important event in which the painter was deeply involved - the formation and first exhibition of the New English Art Club14. With La Thangue, Clausen believed that the club should present the Naturalist vanguard of British painting as a rival to the Academy. Here the insistence on ruthlessly objective rural scenes would be an accepted tenet, sympathetic adherents, painters of the Newlyn and Glasgow schools would be embraced, and the 'dangerous innovator' would have a platform for his work. '1886' emblazoned under the large block capitals of the artist's signature on A Village Maiden was thus a turning point and its sensitive rendering of a nursemaid fully justifies Gordon Roe's a bold claim that at this time 'aesthetic truth' was expressed with 'intrepid distinction'.
1 F Gordon Rowe FSA, 'Sir George Clausen RA, RWS (1952-1944)', Old Watercolour Society Club, 23rd Annual Volume, 1945, p. 13.
2 Sir George Clausen RA, 'Autobiographical Notes', Artwork, no. 25, Spring 1931, p. 19.
3 For a fuller discussion of the impact of Bastien-Lepage on British Art see Kenneth McConkey,'Un petit cercle de thurifraires, Bastien-Lepage et la Grande Bretagne, 48/14, La revue du Muse d'Orsay, Printemps 2007, pp. 20-33.
4 For further reference see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen RA, 1852-1944, 1980 (exh. cat, Bradford and Tyne and Wear Museums), pp. 29-41.
5 Polly was in her teens when she joined the Clausen household. Contemporary reports indicate that she was thirteen, although in old age she maintained that she was born in 1871, making her fifteen. See McConkey, 1980, p. 54.
6 An early illustration of the present work from an unidentified source, contained in the Witt Library, indicates its title as A Village Maiden.
7 McConkey 1980, pp. 52-4.
8 Morley Roberts, 'A Colony of Artists', Scottish Art Review, 1889, p. 72.
9 Letter to Mary Chamot, written in 1954, Hyman Kreitman Archive, Tate Britain, quoted in McConkey, 1980. p. 54.
10 See for instance George Clausen, 'Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism', Scottish Art Review, vol 1, 1888, p. 114.
11 John Maddocks, a mill-owner and later Mayor of Bradford, was one of the leading collectors of contemporary British painting who is likely to have been introduced to Clausen's work by fellow painters, James Charles and Henry Herbert La Thangue. Maddocks' most important acquisition was The Shepherdess, 1885 (Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool); see McConkey 1980, p. 42.
12 This picture was then submitted to the Society of British Artists winter exhibition where Henley hailed it as ' the best picture'; see McConkey 1980, p. 44.
13 Clausen's letters to Emerson are quoted in Neil McWilliam and Veronica Sekules eds., Life and Landscape: PH Emerson, Art and Photography in East Anglia, 1885-1900, 1986, (Sainsbury Centre, University of East Anglia), pp. 8-10. Emerson's Naturalistic Photography for Students of the Art, (Sampson Low, Marston, Searle and Rivington) was published in 1889.
14 Kenneth McConkey, The New English, A History of the New English Art Club, 2006, (Royal Academy Publications), pp. 34-8.