Mr. Wood, Torphichen, West Lothian, Scotland, purchased circa 1914, thence by descent to Mrs Mina Shaw;
By descent to Mr Geoffrey Shaw;
By descent to Mrs Sarah MacIntyre, Renfrewshire;
Sale, Christie's Scotland, 27 Nov. 1996, lot 730;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, Dublin, 1996;
Private collection, Dublin.
Kenneth McConkey, ' ... the incommunicable thrill of things ... British and Irish artists at Grez-sur-Loing', in Toru Arayashiki ed., The Painters in Grez-sur-Loing, exh.cat., Japan Association of Art Museums, 2000, p. 48, illustrated, p. 255.
Spending a futile term at the atelier Julian in the autumn of 1883, his head filled with the happy memories of a summer spent at Grez-sur-Loing, Lavery realized that his student days were over and he was determined not to return after the Christmas séjour. January 1884 found him back in the woods near the village, at work on his Salon picture, La Rentrée des Chêvres (National Gallery of Ireland). The rural naturalism of Bastien-Lepage provided the principles on which his work was based. The pictorial ideal was to replicate an encounter in real life. A series of strategies – selective focus, the use of impasto for foreground detail, painting across the forms in choppy strokes to give solidity – was developed to help achieve verisimilitude. Yet as he worked on the Salon canvas, Lavery remained fascinated by the very modern theme of the Anglo-Saxon outsider's chance meeting with French villagers – whether at the roadside, in the present instance, in the fields or in the depths of the forest.
Since its size, subject matter and its male figure wearing a brown suit, are similar, it is possible that the present work was conceived as a companion to A Stranger (lot 33), even though its mood and management of space is very different from the earlier work. The road to Fontainebleau, mapped by cart-tracks, recedes from the immediate foreground through the middle distance to the background, punctuated only by what appears to be a shepherd and his flock. The tracery of roads and woodland paths through the forest, connecting outlying hamlets, had originally been planned by François 1ère. When the French court was re-established at Fontainebleau, eight kilometres from Grez, by Empress Eugènie in the 1860s, these were widened to take carriages and crinolines. Nature was soon to commence the process of reclamation in the early years of the Third Republic, and the road to Fontainebleau became, for Robert Louis Stevenson, part of a lost world. It was as if '... court ladies, who had known these paths in ages long gone by, still walked in the summer evenings ...', he wrote.
For Lavery however, this setting is one in which a village woman steps aside to make way for a passing horseman. They may have just exchanged greetings since the horse has halted and it and its rider are looking in the woman's direction. Carrying a basket, wearing a blue apron over her dress, with a white kerchief round her neck, she is similar to one of the women in his celebrated On the Bridge at Grez (1884, National Gallery of Ireland, Dublin, fig. 1).
Lavery and the painters around him, influenced by Corot and Bastien-Lepage, were less susceptible to poetic reverie than Stevenson. For him, the immediate challenge lay in factual recording – the space, the sunlight, his first equestrian figure, dramatically foreshortened. From Grez this winding path to Fontainebleau travels due north, and the long shadows falling across it from the right suggest that the present picture represents an early morning in spring. Modified Impressionism is noteworthy in that separate touches of leaf green in the immediate foreground – ébauché in the manner of the ateliers – infer that the grass is reviving with new growth. In the delicate handling of saplings by the roadside, this is barely visible. In a few months this wide path will become overgrown.
However the most significant aspect of On the Road to Fontainebleau is the encounter itself. One of Lavery's predecessors at Grez, the American painter, Will H Low, reflected upon artist interlopers and French peasants, saying that although artists wore 'finer linen and better clothes' there was no 'envy' between the two and in 'the hovel of a French peasant' one met mutual respect and the true 'spirit of equality' (A Chronicle of Friendships, 1908, p. 130). In time this interdependence broke down between the longer resident painters such as Frank O'Meara and the women from the village who would pose for his pictures, and these relationships became Lavery's theme in On the Bridge at Grez (National Gallery of Ireland). It may have had its first airing in A Stranger and On the Road to Fontainebleau. The painter who specialized in 'looks' and 'glances' had found an essential aspect of his sensibility.
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