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Like most of Clausen’s paintings it had its origins in small sketchbook studies. His whole interest in spring ploughing had begun in his final months at Childwick Green in Hertfordshire in 1884, when he designed an ex-libris label for his growing collection of books. It was resumed after his move to Cookham Dean in 1887 when he was painting a series of country labourers and their young helpers, and it originated in a tiny, delicate pencil study. This was quickly fleshed out in oil paint and the larger, present version, begun. The completed picture was then passed to Clausen’s dealer, Goupil & Co on 9 April 1888, for onward transmission to the Grosvenor Gallery summer exhibition at the beginning of May. Before it left the Berkshire studio, however, the artist made a fine pen drawing of the completed work for reproduction in Henry Blackburn’s Grosvenor Notes, and it is principally through this drawing that we have until now, known A Ploughboy. Its reappearance is the most significant Clausen rediscovery in recent years.
When it first appeared the critical consensus was measured. It was ‘earnest’ and ‘truthful’, according to one critic, while another found the boy’s ‘pink, weather-tanned skin’ and ‘square, chaw-bacon features’ challenging. In a longer and more considered note, The Art Journal declared that; ‘Mr Clausen’s treatment of ordinary life in A Ploughboy is fitted to call up all those associations connected with actual facts of eyesight, and none of those sentiments which speech and literature have woven round every subject. This picture is the high water mark of realism in the gallery; the reliefs of the various objects from the ensemble are marvellously subtle and natural, the modelling perfect in its way, without any attempt at grandeur or emotional effect. The style and technique is that of Bastien-Lepage, but the work is done with a mastery which no other picture in the exhibition quite reaches, and which, had it been at the service of some of the men of more original and poetic intention, would have produced wonderful results.’
This sums up the current reservations. There was cap-doffing to those second generation Pre-Raphaelites, those of ‘poetic intention’ who had lost their way, while admiration for Clausen’s ‘realism’, his adherence to the ‘actual facts of eyesight’ was tinged with vague regret. By 1888, Clausen’s association with the French Naturalist painter, Jules Bastien-Lepage was well-known. Back in 1880 the Grosvenor Gallery had showcased his work and thereafter paintings such as Pauvre Fauvette, Pas Mèche and La Petite Coquette appeared in London exhibitions. Yet for The Saturday Review, that A Ploughboy ‘resembles Bastien-Lepage counts for little’ for; ‘Anyone with an eye may satisfy himself of the truth and unforced naturalness of the subtle reliefs and these delicate gradations of light and air.’
Leaving the metropolis for a village in Hertfordshire in 1881 had been Clausen’s initial response to this French painter whose vivid depictions of rural workers was ethnographic in its accuracy. In the 1880s the confrontation with reality in the open field was the artist’s rightful exploration. There was nothing more ‘original’ or imaginative. One had to reach down to express the everyday truth of the disenfranchised. The artist’s sentiments should be ‘socialistic’ and avant-garde. For some, this was an example of the ‘much-dreaded modern school’ and the ‘pity’ was that all other artists in the Grosvenor show had not ‘studied in it with the same purpose as Mr Clausen’.
In recent months, observing the large numbers of British students who were travelling to Paris to receive this ‘Naturalism’ at its source, the French critic, Ernest Chesneau, had proclaimed the ‘English School, in peril’. Clausen had penned a robust reply in the columns of The Magazine of Art, declaring that the ‘parent influence of the modern French naturalistic school was that of our own John Constable’, and it was he who predicted ‘the open air school and the development of impressionism’ (George Clausen, ‘The English School in Peril: A Reply’, The Magazine of Art, 1888, p. 224.) British art education and Academy exhibitions denied this truth and the consequence was a sudden exodus to the teaching ateliers in Paris. The debate raged on. Later that year, when the Glasgow Boys established their parish magazine, The Scottish Art Review, Clausen was asked to publish what could almost be a manifesto for the new movement, describing ‘Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism’, and his points were illustrated with a photogravure of Lepage’s Pas Mèche, (National Gallery of Scotland) a picture of a ragged barge boy holding a whip that had recently been sold to a Scots collector. The artist ought not to paint the ‘comic countryman, nor the sentimental countryman, as seen from a townsman’s point of view’, but return to ‘the peasants of his native village’. Like his Ploughboy, all Lepage’s ‘personnages’ are ‘placed before us without the appearance of artifice, but as they live; and without comment, as far as is possible, on the author’s part’ (George Clausen, ‘Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism, The Scottish Art Review, vol.1, no.5, October 1888, pp.114-5). The present picture, more than any other in the Grosvenor show, expressed this radicalism. Its controversial nature did not stand in the way of its immediate acquisition by Alexander Young, one of the most important collectors of Corot and Barbizon painting in Britain.
Thereafter it travelled to the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1889, where the artist won a gold medal, and it was reproduced as a full page ‘chromotypogravure’ in the exhibition supplement published by Le Figaro. Writing in this publication, the French critic Philippe Gille confirmed the international respect in which the artist was held. Referring to the present picture he declared; ‘Those who take a superficial view, such as is unfortunately inevitable in hurrying through these galleries, so rich as they are in fine works and masterpieces, may fancy that in Mr Clausen they see a pupil of the French masters, Millet and Jules Breton. But I would beg them to give a little longer study to this painter; they will find that they are in the presence of a really original artist – a rare bird even on the English side of the Channel.’
At this point Clausen was showing what may be taken as a grand sequel to A Ploughboy at the Grosvenor Gallery, Ploughing (Aberdeen Art Gallery). Here the plough, of a centuries-old design, consigned to the background of the present picture is brought into use by an aged fieldworker, and the boy, with his ‘tattered hat’ and ‘sackcloth round his shoulders’ leads the horses in a straight furrow, on a cold March day. While there can be no more definitive visual statement of this activity, RAM Stevenson, Professor of Fine Art at Liverpool, greatly preferred the smaller of the two and, reiterating the earlier Art Journal criticism, found that A Ploughboy has ‘more breadth, more freshness and more envelopment than Bastien-Lepage’.
A Ploughboy had of course an important afterlife, not just in Clausen’s work, but also in that of Edward Stott and Alfred Munnings. However the most interesting commentary came twelve years later when Clausen’s great New English Art Club ally, Henry Herbert La Thangue exhibited his Ploughboy (Aberdeen Art Gallery). Here the boy, holds his ‘wand’ and directs the horses down a country lane at dusk. Metropolitan critics were confused about the ‘wand’ in Clausen’s picture, thinking that the ferrules were of ‘gleaming metal’. It was of course a humbler affair, for the boy would simply strip the bark at regular intervals from a thin willow branch with his penknife, and wave it to catch the horse’s eye. Such authentic detail, such intimacy with the life of the fields, was essential, and whizzing through a gallery of masterpieces, this picture, the work of a ‘rare bird’, brings us into the presence of a ‘really original’ observer.
We are grateful to Kenneth McConkey for preparing this catalogue entry.
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