One of the highlights was ‘a delightful head of a lad with a hedge-sparrow’s nest’, the present work (‘Art Exhibitions’, The Times, 1 November 1902, p.8). The latest in a long line of studies of country children, its present rediscovery adds significantly to our understanding of Clausen’s development at the turn of the century. Where fifteen years earlier in Head of a Peasant Boy, 1884 (Ashmolean Museum, Oxford), he had resolutely adhered to the mantra of Bastien-Lepage, by the early 1890s this pejoratively dubbed ‘photorealism’ had been radically overhauled. Consciousness of Impressionism and greater emphasis on prevailing atmospherics had modified his style. Early experiments in the use of pastel had led him in this direction, and these were applauded by ‘new critics’ such as Dugald Sutherland MacColl and George Moore. MacColl even reiterated his comments in a review of the Goupil show, noting that Clausen’s ‘oil painting … often appears to hanker after it [ie pastel techniques]’. (Dugald Sutherland MacColl, ‘Art Exhibitions’, The Saturday Review, 15 November 1902, p.611). The artist was of course familiar with the work of Edgar Degas during these years, and although not an imitator, the cross-hatched application of paint in the present work is used to describe form, as much as light and local colour. ‘The more a man studies Nature out of doors the more he sees how evanescent is the play of light [and] he becomes more critical of his work’, Clausen told an interviewer a few years later. Pointing to a pile of canvases against the wall, he added that they were ‘all commenced in the open air, and unfinished because of the changing conditions’. (JM Gibbon, ‘Painters of Light, An Interview with George Clausen ARA’, Black and White, 8 July 1905, p. 42; quoted in McConkey, 2012, p. 134). The boy in the present picture is viewed in such fluctuating circumstances; the sunlight falling through foliage on his shirt is fugitive as is the blaze of lemon yellow and sap green in the background. Such effects were seen elsewhere in works that he would eventually be able to finish such as The Shy Child (Leeds City Art Galleries) and in the Goupil show, in Kitty, a plein air portrait of the artist’s youngest daughter (destroyed, formerly Matsukata Collection).
Following a sixteenth century convention, each of these children holds an object which carries symbolic meaning. In the present case, the boy, ‘delightful’ though he was, had been bird-nesting and for displaying his trophy the censorious Times felt compelled to add that, ‘This young law-breaker however, deserves anything but the kind treatment awarded him by Mr Clausen’. The allusion here was to the Wild Birds Protection Act, passed in Parliament in 1894, which empowered local councils to post notices, impose fines and offer rewards of ten shillings to anyone apprehending miscreants. ‘Oology’, the science of birds’ nests, had powerful advocates in the ornithologist community who were anxious to stamp out what had been seen for centuries as an innocent country pursuit. Clausen’s views on the subject remain unstated, but it is likely that he sought no more than to highlight this yet further change affecting country customs. There may even be a covert reference to Bastien-Lepage’s Pauvre Fauvette, one of the talisman paintings of his youth, the title of which likened the country child to a wild warbler, if indeed the pale blue eggs the boy is holding are intended to be those of a hedge sparrow.
Clausen actually completed The Bird’s Nest in the early summer of 1901 when he was using George Wright as a model; Wright was the younger brother of Emmy Wright, Clausen’s favourite Widdington model of the 1890s. On 29 July 1901, he sent the picture to William Marchant of the Goupil Gallery, his dealer, to be forwarded to Liverpool for the Autumn Exhibition along with A Gleaner (private collection), a work from the previous Royal Academy exhibition (a work of similar scale, this shows a girl, half-length, carrying a wheatsheaf). When the picture had not sold by the following spring, he proposed offering it at a reduced price to the Bradford collector, John Maddocks. However, by that stage discussions for his solo exhibition were in hand with Marchant, and the picture was withheld. We can assume that the date was added when it reappeared.
Clausen need not have fretted over the disposal of the work since his show was a resounding success. Like The Times, The Illustrated London News hailed him as ‘a British Master’, and surveying the gallery noted the landscapes, orchards and barn interiors, before passing to another ‘masterpiece’. This was The Bird’s Nest.
‘… notable for the exquisitely drawn face of a child, with just a hint of Hogarth’s Shrimp Girl about it – the whole a woodland idyll.’ (‘Art Notes’, Illustrated London News, 15 November 1902, p.33)
We are grateful to Prof. Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.
Please call 1-800-555-5555 to order a print catalog for this sale.
Online Registration to Bid is Closed for this Sale. Would you like to watch the live sale?Watch Live Sale