Sir Alfred James Munnings, P.R.A., R.W.S.
- The Plough in Early Spring
- signed A.J. Munnings and dated 1901 (lower left); inscribed Early Spring / Alfred J. Munnings / Mendsham / Harleston / Norfolk (on a label on the reverse)
- oil on canvas
- 24 x 26 1/4 inches
Sale: Christie's, London, June 12, 1986, lot 179, illustrated
Richard Green, London
Acquired from the above
Manchester, Athenaeum Gallery; York, York City Art Gallery; Bath, Victoria Art Gallery, Alfred Munnings 1878-1959, December 13, 1986-April 19, 1987, pp. 25, 91, no. 6, illustrated (lent by Richard Green)
Beyond its biographical associations, 1901’s The Plough in Early Spring reveals Munnings’ appreciation of the era’s realist and naturalist painters, particularly France’s Jules Bastien-Lepage and his British followers George Clausen and Henry La Thangue. Through the late nineteenth century, Clausen’s portraits of ploughboys and expansive compositions of fieldworkers were recognized for their accurate, personally observed depictions of “ordinary” life (fig. 1.). La Thangue’s compositions took a similar, if at times more symbolic, approach. As La Thangue himself pointed out to Munnings, The Last Furrow (1895, fig. 2), which depicts an elderly ploughman collapsed in his furrowed field, could be read as an allegory of a way of life overtaken by urban industrialization. While The Plough in Early Spring’s subject and compositional arrangement bears a very close resemblance to La Thangue’s, its inclusion of farm animals and village beyond suggest an earlier period of rural painting (McConkey, p. 110). At the same time, Munnings’ use of bold blocks of color, in the ploughman’s dark coat against the vibrant grass, red-orange roofed cottages and a greying sky, and variation in brushwork, reveal his admiration of the French Impressionists, notably Edgar Degas and Henri Fantin Latour— and an impending development in his style in later years. Yet, The Plough in Early Spring avoids what Lionel Lindsay called the “illusory moment” of the Impressionists in favor of the artist’s “sense of love and form, built of live colours—yellow and orange, scarlet, purple, and green— they must be placed with a fine, harmonious precision, or the whole atmospheric balance of the picture will be upset… Munnings does this time and again with unerring tact ” (Lionel Lindsay, A. J. Munnings, R. A. pictures of horses and English life, London 1939, p. 18). Such tact allows The Plough in Early Spring to be a masterful work of rustic naturalism, a foreshadowing of Munnings mature style, and an honest depiction of the land and way of life that shaped him.