The rather amorphous group of artists known as The Glasgow Boys emerged at the end of the 1870s to reject Victorian sentimentalism, staid academicism and the execution of idyllic Highland landscapes in favour of painting scenes taken from everyday life. The first significant group of British artists since the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood they consisted of twenty young artists, including twelve key painters who took their ideas largely from European artistic models. Whilst the French Impressionists may have seemed a little too outré for their taste, they were attracted by the naturalism and realism of Jean-Francois Millet and by James McNeill Whistler's austere and limited palette. Now the Royal Academy has mounted a major show of their work, billing them as 'Pioneering Painters'. The first large-scale survey of the work of 'the Boys' to have been staged in London for 40 years it reveals, to a largely new audience, the work of James Paterson, William York Macgregor, James Guthrie and George Henry, together with younger painters such as John Lavery and Thomas Millie Dow, who were among the group's leading figures. Though, sadly, the Royal Academy has only 80 out of the 130 included in the original version of the exhibition, which had a hugely successful run at Glasgow's Kelvingrove galleries earlier this year.
Condemned by some critics for a lack of originality and plagiarism (The Observer newspaper accused James Guthrie's opening painting A Funeral Service in the Highlands 1881-2 of being over reliant on Courbet's A Burial at Ornans 1849-50, in fact, what is interesting about this work, is how much it reflects the political mood that was sweeping Europe at the time, one that portrayed peasants and farmers in a sympathetic but unsentimental light. In atmosphere and composition Guthrie's funeral is very similar to Fritz Mackensen's Sermon on the Moor 1895, which shows a group of German Lutheran peasants dressed in their Sunday best, listening to an outdoor sermon. It is unlikely that Mackensen would have known Guthrie or Guthrie Mackensen, who lived in an artist's community in Worpswede on the north German moors that counted the poet Rilke and the painter Paula Modersohn-Becker among its participants. Guthrie's work was actually inspired by a painting expedition to Brig o' Turk in the Trossachs. The dark, almost monochromatic canvas is based on a tragic, real life incident, an outdoor Presbyterian service held for a young boy who had drowned in the river during the artist's stay. The weight of the community's grief can be felt in the stooped stature of the men who surround the coffin under the metal-grey sky.
By the beginning of the 1900s Glasgow was the fifth largest city in Europe and the second city of the British Empire after London. With its shipbuilding, smelting and heavy engineering it brought great wealth to a few and dire working conditions to many others. From the mid-19th century the avant-garde had been a primarily urban phenomenon but towards the end of the century that changed as artists looked for creative and intellectual credibility beyond the geographical peripheries of bourgeois society and began to explore, what they believed, were the more authentic and 'primitive' lives of those close to the land. Gauguin and his friends in Pont-Aven were one such example, while artists such as Van Gogh, and Modersohn-Becker claimed a spiritual identification with the poor and, in the case of Gauguin, with those disposed by Imperialism. Primitivism, therefore, became a central trope of modernism as the avant-garde sought to create a distance between what its participants saw as the gross materialism and artificiality of western bourgeois society and the manufacturing base that underpinned it and the 'purity' of peasant life; hence the Glasgow Boy's penchant for rural scenes.
It is, therefore, all too easy for us as jaded moderns (or post-moderns) to dismiss a rustic scene such as James Guthrie's Schoolmates 1884-85, in which three impoverished children make their way along a path, or the small girl guiding her flock of geese with a stick in To Pastures New 1882-3, as simply pleasing on the eye. There is no doubt that there was a middle-class market for sentimental fantasies about the countryside but Guthrie and his colleagues were influenced by the unvarnished depictions of rural labourers from mid-19th-century French painters such as Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage. It would be hard, even for modern cynics, to condemn his The Hind's Daughter as sentimental. Here a young girl stands cutting cabbages, her small frame obviously chilled to the bone by the harsh Scottish wind. These are not revolutionary pictures, they do not in their very execution, as do those of Van Gogh or Modersohn-Becker, create a new raw sort of art, but there is, here, a certain truth that stands in opposition to the bourgeois salon painting and portraiture of the time.
Less satisfactory are many of the sub-Impressionistic works executed when five members of the Glasgow Boys – Arthur Melville, John Lavery, William Kennedy, Thomas Millie Dow and Alexander Roach - travelled to France, where they spent time at the artists' colony of Grez-sur-Loing, taking advantage of the weather to paint en plein air, enjoying the more vibrant southern colours and deep shadows created by the contrasting light and shade. George Henry and E.A Hornel went further afield to Japan where they painted enough geisha girls and silk markets to satisfy the fashionable tastes for anything Japanese or oriental. Arthur Melville also painted in Spain, Egypt and the Persian Gulf, producing vibrant coloured watercolours and oils that, although to the modern eye seem tainted with a certain Imperialistic vision, nonetheless employ astonishingly brilliant washes of colour to capture the Galician coast in The Sapphire Sea, Passages 1892. John Lavery chose not to return to France settling into painting scenes of middle class leisure – the novel sport of tennis that was popular because women could play and the new fangled mode of transport, cycling. These privileged scenarios stand in contrast to the more gritty urbanisation portrayed in George Henry's Sundown 1887 that depicts the lights of warehouses and factories shimmering on the far banks of the River Clyde.
George Henry and E. A. Hornel initially shared the Glasgow Boys' commitment to naturalism but slowly abandoned this in favour of strong colour and an emphasis on pattern and heavy impasto. The decidedly odd painting The Druids – Bringing in the Mistletoe 1890 depicts Celtic priests in a sacred oak grove, their robes and head ornaments decorated with patterns of gold leaf that evoke the fashion for Japanese art and woodcuts. Its decorative style has an affinity with the highly ornate works of the Viennese Secessionists, especially Gustav Klimt.
The Glasgow Boys Pioneering Painters 1880-1900 at The Royal Academy from 30 October 2010 to 23 January 2011