Tomorrow Bonham’s are auctioning a Clausen from 1887, called in its day Gathering Potatoes and (by RAM Stevenson in 1890) Digging Potatoes.
The catalogue notes by Kenneth McConkey tell us that the name Bonham’s are using – In the Fields: Dannes, Pas de Calais – comes from GC’s own inscription on the reverse.
Signed (lower left), also signed, titled and dated 1887 (verso)
Oil on canvas
61.5 x 50.8 cm (24 1/4 x 20 in)
But not all of the information on the reverse dates from 1887: so perhaps, despite the catalogue entries, not this title. An inscription, McConkey tells us, indicates that it was painted in the immediate environs of Dannes.
In the autumn of 1887 George Clausen crossed the English Channel on a painting holiday in northern France. Five years before he had worked at Quimperlé [in Brittany], a popular artists’ colony, but on this occasion, he headed for the tiny village of Dannes, a few miles from the sea to the north of Étaples [north of present Normandy].
There was a small colony of painters in Étaples in 1887, McConkey tells us, which included Frank O’Meara and an American, Eugene Vail. Clausen’s contact with them has not been established.
In Gathering Potatoes, the painting of the soil I think vividly shows Clausen’s use of the “square brush” technique used by him and other English and Scottish naturalists in the 1880s. In its triangular constructions, the painting reminds one of La Thangue. And, of course, it comes squarely in the period of Clausen’s infatuation with the art of Jules Bastien-Lepage, the French naturalist.
The tenet of the Bastien-Lepage creed was complete objectivity […] . The eye and brain functioned in the first instance like a sophisticated recording apparatus – like a camera.
However, there was a more specific objective in Gathering Potatoes, and this was to tackle one of Bastien’s most celebrated subjects, portrayed on a grand scale in Saison d’octobre, recolté des pommes de terre (National Gallery of Victoria, Melbourne). This had first been shown at the Salon in 1879 and it re-appeared in the artist’s posthumous sale at the Hôtel Drouot in Paris in 1885. Clausen, if he did not see the picture on either of these occasions would have been familiar with at least one of the two widely-circulated engravings of the picture. In Bastien, the principal figure carefully tips newly-dug potatoes from her wicker basket into a sack, following, but not imitating the action of the fieldworkers in J-F Millet’s earlier The Potato Harvest, 1854-7 (Walters Art Gallery, Baltimore).
Naturalism, more than earlier landscape traditions, as distinct from portraiture in a landscape, demanded a subject in the immediate foreground. That foreground had to link to a background, and that could be done in various ways. In GC’s Winter Work of 1883-4 the row of winter turnips recesses almost to vanishing point. In The Stone Pickers of 1887, as McConkey points out, the background is a slope. A slope is also used in the, to me, superior Stonepickers – Midday, a watercolour of, I think, 1883, which I’ll show later.
A flat plain without obvious perspectives or spatial cues gave a more challenging set of circumstances.
Northern France was a different landscape from that surrounding Cookham Dene, Berkshire, where GC was living in 1887. Does the background in Gathering Potatoes work? To me, it doesn’t seem consequential enough to balance the foreground: but I have not seen the original.
The painting, McConkey tells us, was shown at The New English Art Club in 1888 – during Clausen’s period of self-imposed exile from the Royal Academy.
Gathering Potatoes was approved by those critics who commented on it in 1888. The club’s third annual exhibition saw it infiltrated by refugees from the Royal Society of British Artists. This radical group led by Walter Sickert, was obliged to leave the society when Whistler was forced to resign the presidency. The ‘impressionist’ works by Philip Wilson Steer and Sickert effectively stole the show and although he continued to support the New English, Clausen was already beginning to have misgivings about the direction it was taking. For the next two years, he sent his important canvases to Sir Coutts Lindsay’s Grosvenor Gallery. This did not mean that Gathering Potatoes went unnoticed. It was illustrated in the Pall Mall Gazette ‘Extra’ in 1888 from a drawing by Clausen, and later surveys of his work recognized its importance in his development. […]
The drawing (9x8 ins) passed through the Fine Art Society in 1986 (Spring ’86, no. 136). […]
The verso inscription indicates that Clausen retouched Gathering Potatoes around . Since there are no obvious signs of damage and composition remains unaltered from that shown in 1888, we assume that these alterations were minor.
Clausen beginning to have doubts about the direction the New English was taking was Clausen ceasing to be avant-garde – which he had been until then, or at least between 1882 and ‘84.