Saturday, April 6, 2013

Figures in the Open Air

Rural Pursuits: Figuring it Out

JiF commented on last night's post that he's attracted to figures in the open air. I well understand the allure. 

As most of you know, I couldn't paint a believable figure if my life depended upon it. But that's not the reason that I haven't essayed figures involved in country pursuits.

I have seen a lot of ever-finer craft from my peers these last ten years. Often it involves the figure, either indoors or out. It seems to me that there a lot of painters, really talented ones, who mistakenly think that if you slap a young girl into a costume, you can place her at any garden gate and have a painting worthy of Clausen or Bastien-Lepage.

Ah, 'twere it only so easy! The paintings by the nineteenth-century painters had a resonance for their viewers. They were true to conditions, costumes, labors, etc., because the artists knew what they were talking about, backwards and forwards. Nowadays, a girl at the gate, with tattoo and mantilla isn't resonant. It makes a pastiche of something that was honest.

At least in my time living in the country, I have rarely seen people on foot working in fields, tending flocks, etc. I did once see two very old brothers tedding in a field the size of a postage stamp. It was so unexpected, especially as they might well have been in their early nineties, that I almost couldn't process the information.

This speaks to my point: I don't think you can just insert people going about ancient chores unless you can do so in a plausible way. I only see farmers in huge, air-conditioned tractors these days. Nobody's swinging a scythe or, for that matter, dredging a ditch.

The first painting below is by Erik Werenskjold, painter and book illustrator. This painting is in Copenhagen, where I had the privilege of seeing it. I'd never heard of Werenskjold. For my money this is a masterwork.  

Erik Werenskjold, Dredging a Ditch

Anyone who's put up with me for any length of time knows that George Henry's Noon is a favorite of mine. I saw it at a show in London at the Barbican Art Gallery. It was my introduction to the Glasgow Boys.

George Henry, Noon
The paintings which follow are all ones I like, but not all for the same reason. They do share, for me at least, a real believability. I hope you like them. (If you find anyone doing these sorts of chores these days, call me and I'll be there to paint them). I already can sit in a pasture and watch a crow.

Henry Herbert LaThangue, In the Dauphiné

Henry Herbert LaThangue, Shaking Down Cider Apples

Rosa Bonheur, Ploughing in the Nivernais

Anton Mauve, In the Vegetable Garden

Ruger Donoho, La Marcellerie

George Clausen, Ploughing
Winslow Homer, Boys in a Pasture, MFA Boston

James Guthrie, To Pastures New

James Guthrie, Women Working in a Field

Henry Herbert LaThangue, Surrey Hayfield

Henry Herbert LaThangue, The Watersplash
Jules Bastien-Lepage, Les bles murs

Jules Bastien-Lepage, Pas Meche

Aleksi Gallen-Kallela, Boy and Crown


  1. The first one - the ditch - is great. I like Lepage and Clausens' color and paint application a great deal. Here, there's a shephard with a big flock at Lussan (hilltop village - the forge is open on Fridays). His face gets black from the sun - astonishing - it sort of glows. The shephard in the village opposite takes his mixed flock (of goats and sheep) up to the ruins of the Roman town to pasture them on the plateau every night of summer. His son helps hims - he's handicapped. Above all there're a lot of hikers. The girls might well still hve tatoos - was that an ancient custom?! The hikers tends to be too old to have tatoos tho' ;D. Great stuff. Lovely paintings and the sun's come out. Life suddenly looks good... ..thanks!

    1. Jon, Your mention of the man and his son, with their mixed herd, reminded me of U.S. poet W. S. Merwin's 'The Lost Upland', three long prose pieces based on the causse. I highly recommend it.

  2. I love the boy and the crow. And you are so right about the believability (is that a word) aspect. He looks so Russian.
    Fortunately here in the vineyards we still have significant manual labour in the vines and I have always loved seeing our neighbours heading out to their smallholdings, completely exposed to the elements, on their trusty old beat up tractors. Have to capture some of it before it is all history! Good post Donald.

    1. Bruce, Gallen-Kallela Is, in fact, Finnish, so your 'Russian' reaction is not so far off the mark. I seem to remember a painting by him of three boys skipping stones, full of psychological tension. Couldn't find it.(Maybe it's not by him after all). Gallen-Kallela is best known for his illustrations of the Finnish national epic.

  3. You need to take a trip to Lancaster PA. Farm country with no tractors. Everything is horse drawn and done by hand including the wash, which is hung out to dry. We had a wonderful time there. We were driving up from Ashville. We stopped at Brandywine and were going to spend the night in Strasburg and then head to the Pocono Mts. but we had so much fun in Lancaster county that we spent the last four days there and reluctantly drove home the last day.

    1. Thanks, Jack.I once had a girlfriend from Lancaster, but she was no farmer's daughter. Your point is well-taken that there are pockets of the 'old ways'. Equally true is that having to drive for seven hours to get there rather makes my case. Hope you drew and painted!

  4. Maitre. I love these posts with so many beautiful unsung paintings. Where are the goat girls when you need them? Cheers Y

    1. An idea for a painting? A goat girl, with all her kids looking at their phones