'Paris is simply a place of Freedom' (Frances Spalding, British Art since 1900, 2002, p.38)
1907 was a pivotal year in John Duncan Fergusson's life; it was the year that he met Elizabeth Dryden and more importantly, the Irish-American artist Anne Estelle Rice, and it has been argued that this introduction at the Paris Plage may well have contributed to Fergusson's decision to leave Edinburgh and move permanently to Paris the same year. When Fergusson arrived in Paris (staying first at the Hotel de la Haute-Loireat before moving to his studio at 18 Boulevard Edgar Quintet), he was drawn to the debauchery and raucous moods of the lower classes and was inevitably attracted to the famous Parisian haunts Closerie des Lilas, the Concert-Mayol, the Cirque Medrano and of course the Café d'Harcourt. In spite of their infamous reputations, these cafés were the meeting place for the Parisian intelligentsia, where the latest poetry would be recited, and works from the studios of Picasso, Matisse and other contemporary Parisian painters would be discussed. For Fergusson, another benefit of these cafés and nightclubs was the opportunity to paint the clientele, especially the women. Fergusson himself offered an insight into the lure of the Cafe d'Harcourt and its customers; 'Further down the Boul Miche was the wonderful Cafe Harcourt, where they had a lively Hungarian band that used a metal tray with knives and forks and spoons on it, to reinforce, very successfully, their music. But for me the greatest attraction was the girl frequenters. They were chiefly girls employed by dressmakers and milliners and wore the things they were working at, mostly too extreme from a practical point of view, but with that touch of daring that made them very helpful - they were a great help to me...We always came down to the d'Harcourt after dinner to make sketches of these charming girls, who were quite pleased to be drawn and didn't becoming self-conscious or take frozen poses' ('Memories of Peploe', in Scottish Art Review, 1962, vol.8, no.3)
The present work is typical of this period in his oeuvre; if Fergusson's work prior to 1907 is described as Whistlerian in its application, then it now took on a much more forceful technique, with heavily applied paint and bold use of colour, at times overwhelming the viewer. This technique is somewhat at odds with the Fauvist style of light pigment application, which left parts of the canvas exposed. In spite of the heavy application Fergusson maintained a delicacy, with rich impasto combined with expressive brushwork, which is illustrated perfectly in the present work by the movement of the figure's green dress, capturing the attention not only of the other figures, but also of the viewer. This change in direction shows that Fergusson was aware of the different developments in Paris at the time, from Matisse through to Chabaud, and how he was influenced by them, whilst still forging a path of his own.
A Montmatre Nightclub was owned by Harry McColl, a businessman living in Paris who Fergusson befriended soon after arriving in the French capital. McColl introduced Fergusson to some of the cafés and other nocturnal haunts that became so inspiring to the young artist and it was McColl who encouraged Fergusson to sketch the various denizens of the cafés and nightclubs. In a letter to Margaret Morris, written when he and McColl were visiting Nice in 1913, Fergusson wrote of their friendship; 'Yes, we had a very good time together - walked and talked about everything; its really a terrific thing friendship...Harry was the first person to come see me. He's the man I like best, Quite wonderful.' McColl owned at least sixteen pictures by Fergusson, including several important café scenes, such as The Spotted Scarf and The Yellow Hat. Fergusson and McColl remained friends for many years and as late as 1930 Fergusson painted a portrait of McColl's wife Grace (Christie's, 27 May 2010, lot 58). McColl's collection remained in Paris until after his death 1957, when the paintings were purchased by Margaret Morris and returned to Scotland.
We are very grateful to Jenny Kinnear of The Fergusson Gallery for her assistance with cataloguing this work.
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