Alexander Reid & Lefevre;
‘The latter half of Fergusson’s painting career was dominated by his exuberant images of bathers and nudes, which for many hold an enduring appeal. Their vibrant colour and mood of exoticism and sensuality convey his immense love of life and capacity to appreciate its simplest pleasures.’ (Kirsten Simister, Living Paint; J. D. Fergusson 1874-1961, 2001, p. 110)
Painted in 1928 Nude and Cliff is arguably the largest and most complete Colourist nude to have appeared on the art market in recent years. Depicting Fergusson’s beautiful partner Margaret (Meg) Morris, the innovative dancer, her athletic physique is depicted against a background of an almost mystical Mediterranean paradise. Unlike Hunter, Peploe and Cadell who painted very few nudes after their student years, Fergusson found the naked human form highly inspiring and produced a series of striking nudes throughout his career. The nude had been an important subject to the Fauves, from Matisse’s controversial Blue Nude of 1907 and Derain’s Three Bathers of the same year. Fergusson was a great admirer of such works and the monumentality of these nudes permeated into his own work.
The painting was based upon the sketches made by Fergusson of Meg and other models on the private beach owned by George Davidson at his idyllic Chateau des Enfants at Antibes which became the Fergusson’s summer retreat for many years. Fergusson had found the house for Davidson when he was seeking a place in the sun, in 1920. The chateau had been little more than a ruin among the woods that lined the coast at Antibes, built sixty years earlier by King Leopold of Belgium but not completed. Davidson made the chateau into a beautiful haven where Fergusson and Meg found respite from the bustle of Paris, spending their time swimming in the azure ocean from the rocks and painting among the trees. Meg described the setting for Nude and Cliff thus; ‘The Cap d’Antibes runs nearly two miles out to the sea. The chateau woods ran to a bay facing due south, with cliffs of jagged rocks about twelve feet high, and water about fifteen feet deep. Lovely for diving… everyone bathed off the rocks and afterwards sun-bathed in the woods or on the rocks. When they got too hot, they dived into the sea again’ (Margaret Morris, The Art of J. D. Fergusson; A Biased Biography, 1974, p. 150). In a comparable painting entitled Nude with Oranges and Sunlight of 1928, Fergusson suggested that the scene depicts a naked picnic amid the seclusion of the trees whilst the bathing cap worn by Meg in Nude and Cliff suggests that she has been swimming. The elements of the picnic and the bathing cap give the paintings a reality and imply that they were based upon Fergusson’s observations of Meg as she enjoyed the sunlight of the south of France, uninhibited by her nudity.
Rather than inhabiting the landscape, Fergusson incorporated the organic curves and angles of the female form into the rhythms of the trees and the ocean beyond. Like a primordial goddess of nature or dryad, she symbolises the undulating symphonies of nature. Fergusson’s philosophy was based upon his understanding of the writings of Henri-Bergson, whose principal of elan-vital (feminine life-force) became influential around the time that Fergusson arrived in Paris 1907 when he published Creative Evolution. The English literary critic John Middleton Murry, who met Fergusson in Paris in 1910, explained the importance Fergusson placed upon the central idea of Bergsonism; ‘One word was recurrent in all our strange discussions – the word “rhythm”… For Fergusson it (rhythm) was the essential quality in a painting or sculpture; and since it was at that moment that the Russian Ballet first came to Western Europe for a season at the Chatelet, dancing was obviously linked, by rhythm, with the plastic arts. From that, it was but a short step to the position that rhythm was the distinctive element in all the arts, and that the real purpose of ‘this modern movement’ – a phrase frequent on Fergusson’s lips – was to reassert the pre-eminence of rhythm.’ (ibid Simister, p. 48)
Nude and Cliff was included in the important exhibition of Fergusson’s paintings held at the Kraushaar Gallery in New York in 1928 organised by one of Fergusson’s most loyal supporters and friends John Ressich, the writer and critic. The Kraushaar exhibition brought Fergusson’s art to the attention of an American audience and was a great success. The exhibition included eighteen paintings and six sculptures but it was the striking nudes including Nude and Cliff that the critics applauded most vehemently.
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