William McTaggart. Part 2. The later years.

Self portrait (1852)

William McTaggart’s art was likened to Impressionism and yet he was a forerunner of that genre.  He was a pioneer of Impressionism before it was given a label.  It is true that he was fascinated with nature and man’s relationship with it, and he endeavoured to capture aspects such as the fleeting effects of light on water. He also, like the Impressionists, liked to paint en plein air.  This aspect of his work was discussed in an early edition of the Art Journal:

“…A Scottish Impressionist”, points out that “before the term had been imported from France and Monet and the rest had formulated their creed, Mr McTaggart had evolved for himself a method and style not unlike what they ultimately achieved, but exceeding it in suggestion, significance, and beauty…”

As Happy as the Day is Long by William McTaggart (1880)

After the period when McTaggart depicted idyllic scenes populated with young children he turned to landscape and seascape work, the latter being motivated by the love of the sea as a child when he lived close to Machrihanish and the storm ravaged Atlantic coast, often battered by the great and unforgiving ocean.  William McTaggart would visit Machrihanish and paint the bay and the vast expanse of the sea.  He would paint en plein air at different times of the day capturing the understated appeal of the waves as they rolled towards the long continuous stretch of seashore under sunlight with the white streaks of the breaking waves.  Other works depicted the rocky shoreline with just a hint of colour.  In his works such as Machrihanish Bay, his depiction brings out a feeling not just the powerfulness of the sea but the aloneness, two feelings which he recognised would be in the mind of the fishing folk as they went on their daily voyage.

The Storm by William McTaggart (1890)

His 1890 painting entitled The Storm emphasised the darker side of the sea and the perils waiting for those who chose to underestimate or defy it.  As we look at the painting, we can almost hear the howling wind and the sound of the crashing waves upon the rocky foreshore.

The Fishing Fleet Setting Out by William McTaggart (early 1890’st

It has to be noted that in McTaggart’s later paintings, details became secondary to his desire to depict his personal consciousness of nature and the life around him and the effect of differing light on what he saw before him.  An example of this is his early 1890’s painting entitled The Fishing Fleet Setting Out.  We see the children of the fishermen in the foreground almost camouflaged by the rocks. They are playing in the rock pools.   In the far distance we see the fishing fleet setting out to sea.  A detailed depiction of the children was not important to McTaggart who was more interested in the ever-changing state of the sea and the weather.  He has used a pink/cocoa coloured ground which enhances and gives a hazy warmth to the scene.

The Coming of St Columba by William McTaggart (1895)

McTaggart painted numerous seascapes featuring the waters around southern Kintyre.  In 1895 he completed a work entitled The Coming of St Columba.  St Columba had left Ireland on a missionary voyage to Scotland in 563AD.  He and twelve travelling companions travelled across the Irish sea in a wicker boat known as a currach which was covered with leather.  Legend has it that he landed on the south of Kintyre, close to the small village of Southend before journeying onwards north to the Isle of Iona.  In McTaggart’s depiction of the arrival of the saint he has used The Gauldrons instead, as the setting for the work.   The Gauldrons (Scottish Gaelic: Innean nan Gailleann) meaning “Bay of Storms” is a bay facing the Atlantic Ocean in the village of Machrihanish in Argyll, on the west coast of Scotland, a short distance north of the tip of the Mull of Kintyre.  The figures and boats were added in the studio after the landscape was completed

And All the Choral Waters Sang by William McTaggart (1902)

In 1902, he completed another seascape entitled And All the Choral Waters Sang which comes from a line of verse from the famous Victorian poet, Algernon Charles Swinburne’s poem, At a Months End:

“…Hardly we saw the high moon hanging,

Heard hardly through the windy night

Far waters ringing, low reefs clanging,

Under wan skies and waste white light.


With chafe and change of surges chiming,

The clashing channels rocked and rang

Large music, wave to wild wave timing,

And all the choral water sang…”

The depiction evokes the music of the crashing Atlantic waves on Machrihanish beach. McTaggart’s son-in-law, James Caw, who had married William’s daughter, Anne, said that the work was painted entirely in the open at Machrihanish in June 1902.   In his book, William McTaggart, R.S.A., V.P.R.S.W.; a biography and an appreciation, Caw writes about this work:

“…Both breeze and sunshine pervade the masterpiece, to which Swinburne’s splendidly descriptive line, “And all the Choral Waters sang,” was given as title. Yet, while the mighty music of great waves breaking in many rhythmic chords of thundering surf upon the Atlantic shore is recreated to the imagination by the artist’s wizardry of line and colour and design, one feels as keenly the “Light that leaps and runs and revels through the springing flames of spray.” Looking north-west, the radiant early afternoon sunshine of June falls upon the ordered on-rush of these charging regiments of rearing and plunging white horses sweeping into the long curving bay, and raises their white foaming manes and flying silver tails to a brilliance greater than that of sun-illumined snow. And, between the gleaming lines of racing white, the wind-swept sky throws reflections of vivid changing blues, which, mingling with the lustrous greens amid the leaping waves and the rosy purples and tawnies afloat in the shoreward shooting ripples, make a wonderful and potent colour harmony. Words, however, are woefully inadequate to convey any real impression of this splendid picture — this great sea symphony in colour and light and movement. And, pathetic though “a symphony transposed for the piano” may be, reproduction of such a picture is even more disappointing…”

Playmates, Gracie by William McTaggart

William McTaggart suffered two great losses in 1884.   In November, his mother died, aged 80.  She had been living in Glasgow but had in her latter years returned to Campbeltown.  William had been greatly devoted to his mother and her death had greatly affected him.  During the few days he and his wife had been at Campbeltown his wife’s health, which had been poor, deteriorated.  On returning home they consulted her doctor who recommended an immediate operation and this was carried out immediately.  Sadly, Mrs McTaggart never recovered and on December 15th 1884 she died, aged 47.  William and his children were devastated.  His eldest daughter, Jean, would not let him out of her sight even when he was trying to court his future second wife, Marjorie Henderson.

Belle by William McTaggart (1886)

In 1886 McTaggart completed a portrait of his eldest daughter, Jean.  It was entitled Belle.  She stands before us in a red frock with a lace collar. The painting was owned by Jean’s sisters who later bequeathed it to the National Galleries Scotland in 1991.

Marjorie McTaggart, William McTaggart’s second wife

On April 6th 1886, William McTaggart married Marjory Henderson, who was the eldest daughter of Joseph Henderson, a well-known Glasgow artist, and who, despite their age difference, had forged a close relationship with McTaggart’s eldest daughter, Jean.  William was fifty-one and Marjory was thirty-years of age.  Unfortunately, this large difference in age led to a certain amount of unwelcoming gossip.  However, this second marriage proved an incredibly happy one and, importantly, his new wife was accepted by all the children from his first marriage.  William and Marjorie went on to have a further nine children.  This harmonious atmosphere at home was so important to his progression as an artist

The McTaggart family

By the end of the 1880’s William Taggart’s paintings were selling so well that he started to refuse commissions which meant he was told what to paint.  By doing this he could choose what to depict on his canvases, such as seascapes and landscapes of his choice.  In 1889 all his works held by the art dealer, Dowells, were put up for sale and a total of £4000 was realised, an amazing figure for the time.  In the May of that year he moved from his Edinburgh studio and went to live at Dean Park, Broomieknowe, on the outskirts of Lasswade, Midlothian, some ten miles south east of the Scottish capital.  It was here he built himself a small studio which would last him six years until 1895, at which time, he built a much larger studio/gallery.  He was sixty years old and finally he was able to relax and enjoy semi-retirement.  He lived in an uncomplicated and undemanding manner and often welcomed young aspiring painters to his studio.  He was always supportive and had words of encouragement for them.  William McTaggart died of heart failure, at his home in Dean Park, Broomieknowe, Lasswade on the afternoon of April 2nd 1910 at the age of 75. He had been very poorly during the previous winter but it was still a shock to his family when he suddenly died.  He had spent the last twenty years of his life at his home, Dean Park and although it was somewhat isolated from the artistic hubbub of Edinburgh, William was just pleased to have the company of his large family and visiting friends. 

The Old Fisherman by William McTaggart,

His funeral was held on April 5th at Echo Bank Cemetery in Newington, Edinburgh and was attended by a large crowd with a procession of some twenty mourning coaches leaving Bonnyrigg for the short journey to Edinburgh.  He lies with both his first and second wives: Mary Holmes and Marjory Henderson. Three of his children who died in infancy and are buried with him. His daughter, Annie Mary who married the art historian Sir James Caw, lies alongside. Joseph’s sons John Henderson and Joseph Morris Henderson also became painters as did his fifth daughter from his second marriage, Eliza (Betty) McTaggart.

A good deal of information for this and the previous blog came from the Bonnyrigg Lasswade Local History website:



The Scottish Colourists, Part 4 – George Leslie Hunter

Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter  (c.1920)
Cottage, near Largo by G.L.Hunter (c.1920)

In my blog today I conclude my look at the group of early twentieth century Scottish artists, who would later be grouped together and known as the Scottish Colourists.  The fourth member of this group was George Leslie Hunter.   Hunter was born in Rothesay, a town on the west coast Scottish Isle of Bute, in 1877.  He was the youngest of five children, born to William Hunter, a chemist by trade and his wife, Jeanie Hunter (née Stewart).  His initial schooling was at Rothesay Academy.  In February 1892, Hunter’s elder sister Catherine died and this was followed shortly after with the death of his elder brother.  Both iwho were in their early twenties were thought to have died from an influenza pandemic which had been sweeping the country.  Although his mother and father had been toying with the idea of emigrating, these tragic events were the final push they needed to leave Scotland and in September that year they set sail for California via New York to start a new life.  The family arrived in California where Hunter’s father bought an orange farm east of Los Angeles.  George enjoyed life in America and spent most of his time sketching and enjoying the favourable Californian climate.   He did not undertake formal art training, and was largely self-taught.  When he was nineteen years of age he managed to get work as an illustrator for some local magazines.  The father’s farming venture lasted just eight years before Hunter’s parents decided to return home to Scotland.  However George, who had developed a love of art, was enjoying life in America so much that he decided not to return with his parents but instead decided to stay on and in 1900 he moved to San Francisco where he became part of the Bohemian lifestyle of the Californian city.   The following year he had some of his artwork exhibited at the California Society of Artists exhibition.

To earn money Hunter illustrated work for the Californian magazines, Overland Monthly and the Sunset magazine.  The latter was a promotional journal for Southern Pacific Transportation Company, designed to combat all the negative publicity regarding the “Wild West” life in California. In 1904 Hunter went to New York with friends and then on to Paris and it was whilst in the French capital that Hunter took up oil painting and became determined to become a professional artist.  On his return to California in 1905, he started to build up a large collection of his work which he intended to exhibit at his first solo exhibition which was to be held at the Mark Hopkins Institute the following year.  However tragedy struck in the form of the great Californian earthquake in April 1906 which devastated San Francisco and destroyed his studio and most of his artwork.

Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)
Fruit and Flowers on a Draped Table by G.L.Hunter (1919)

Hunter returned to Glasgow and rejoined his mother.  He continued his self-education as a painter and carried earning a living as an illustrator.  Many of his initial oil paintings were of the still life genre.  He liked to experiment with these works, revelled in the use of colour and often would incorporate the technique used by the Dutch still-life masters, such as Willem Kalf, Jan Davidsz de Heem and the great Willem van Aelst.

Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)
Still Life with Nautilus Cup by William Kalf (1662)

These still life painters often composed their colourful depiction of floral and fruit arrangements with a drab and dark background to afford the greatest contrast.  They used the chiaroscuro technique to dramatic effect and for Kalf it was his delightful way in which he  combined in his paintings humble objects such as simple kitchen utensils with luxurious objects such as crystal glassware and exquisite silverware.    Hunter would probably have seen examples of the Dutch masters in the museums of Glasgow and would have found them inspirational for his work.   Although this may be construed as “copying” by Hunter and could be looked upon as a form of plagiarism, in fact it was not, for he was simply studying the great works of art and taking what he had seen back into his own works.

Hunter met fellow Colourist, Samuel Peploe, through mutual friends, the artists, Edward Archibald Taylor and his wife Jessie Marion King when he was in Paris in 1910 but it was over a decade later before the two became close friends.  Hunter’s professional artistic career really started in 1913 when he was fortunate to be introduced to Alexander Reid, an influential Glasgow art dealer.  That year he held his first solo exhibition in Glasgow at Reid’s gallery.   Three years later, in 1916, Hunter exhibits more work at the gallery and later showed at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts.  The review of the exhibition in the March edition of the Bailie newspaper commented on Hunter’s work:

“…He has three of four examples of still life that are superlatively strong…. they show a mastery of form and colour that takes one back to the triumphs of the Dutchmen…”

It was through exhibitions like these that Hunter connected with a group of affluent collectors who would continue to buy his works of art over the next fifteen years.

Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)
Portrait of Alexnder Reid by Vincent van Gogh (1887)

During the post-First World War days, Hunter became influenced more and more by the works of the modern French painters he had seen whilst visiting Paris, in particular Matisse, Cezanne and van Gogh.   In 1922 he went on an extended tour of Europe, visiting the French Riviera, Florence and Venice.  Glasgow art dealer Alex Reid and Parisian gallery owner, Ettienne Bignou, were developing a business relationship around this time and decided to stage an exhibition of the works of Peploe, Cadell and Hunter, entitled Les Peintres De l’Ecosse Moderne at the Galerie Barbazanges in June 1924.  Following this Hunter held a joint exhibition the next year with Peploe and Cadell at the Leicester Galleries in London.

Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)
Provencal Landscape by George Leslie Hunter (c.1929)

During the period between 1924 and 1927 Hunter carried out a lot of his work in Fife and around Loch Lomond.  Whether it was due to the cold climate of Scotland or just his desire for the chance to savour the bright light and warm weather in southern France,  he became restless and left Scotland and based himself in the small Provencal village of Sainte-Paul-de-Vence.  From there he would set off on daily sketching trips around the many picturesque Provencal villages.  Most of the paintings he completed were sent back to Alex Reid in Glasgow for him to sell.  In 1929 he made the trip to New York for his exhibition at the Ferargil Galleries, which was critically acclaimed as an outstanding success.  From New York he returned to France but in November 1929 he suffered a breakdown and his health began to deteriorate and he is forced to return to Glasgow where he was looked after by his sister.

Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)
Reflections, Balloch by George Leslie Hunter (1930)

During the last couple years of his life Hunter concentrated once again on painting scenes around Loch Lomond and the village of Balloch which is situated at the southern tip of the loch.  He had painted scenes in this area five years earlier but now his later works show a greater clarity and are unfussy in composition.  In his work, entitled Reflections, Balloch, Hunter has concentrated the main focus of the work on the sparkle of light and reflections on the surface of the loch.  Many of these later works featuring the loch also incorporated houseboats and this series of paintings has been acknowledged as some of his best. His fellow colourist Samuel Peploe praised it at this time, saying:

“…that is Hunter at his best, and it is as fine as any Matisse…”

In 1931 Hunter travelled to Paris for the last time so as to be present at the highly successful exhibition Les Peintres Ecossais from which the French government bought a landscape of Loch Lomond for their national collection.  Buoyed by the success of the exhibition, of which he played a leading part, he began to make tentative plans to move from Scotland and go to live in London.  His spirits were high, he believed his luck had changed and he viewed the future with great optimism.  He was quoted at the time as saying:

“…I have been kicking at the door so long and at last it is beginning to open…”

Sadly before he could savour what he believed would be the start of a new life, he died in a Glasgow nursing home in December 1951, aged just 54.

This is my final blog about the four Scottish Colourists.  It cannot be emphasised enough the importance France played in their art.  In the book Scottish Colourists 1900-1930, one of the authors, Elizabeth Cumming, a lecturer at Edinburgh College of Art, commented on this fact, writing:

“…Without their French contacts and experience, none of the Scottish Colourists would have developed their art as we know it.  For all, visiting and living in France invested their ideas with a new vision.  For Cadell, it meant developing an empathy with stylistic sophistication.  For Hunter, visiting the south of France especially injected light airiness into his landscapes.  For Peploe, two years of life in Paris opened a door to the intellectual possibilities within traditional subjects.  And for Fergusson, living in France for far longer than any of the others, it became the crux of his existence…”


The Scottish Colourists, Part 3 – John Duncan Fergusson

Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)
Self-portrait by J.D.Fergusson (1902)

Today I am looking at the third member of the Scottish Colourist group and possibly the most well-known, John Duncan Fergusson, who was born in March 1874 in Leith, a town which is often known as the port of Edinburgh.  He was the eldest of four children of John Fergusson, a spirit merchant and Christina, his mother.  He attended the Royal High School, Edinburgh and Blair Lodge School in Linlithgow.  Following this, in 1892, Fergusson attended the Edinburgh University Medical School to study medicine with the intention of becoming a naval surgeon.  However his lack of application to his studies resulted in him leaving after just two years, at which time, he decided on a complete volte-face and decided to study art at the city’s Trustees Academy School of Art.  Once again, Fergusson did not last long studying at this academy for he left stating that he found it too difficult to reconcile  what he considered to be, their old fashioned and inflexible teaching methods and their rigid curriculum which had been set in stone.   He left the art school and decided to set himself up in his own studio in Picardy Place, Edinburgh and simply teach himself how to paint.

Fergusson knew of the work of the Glasgow Boys and decided to do as they had done, go and study art in Paris which was, at the time, looked upon as the art capital of the world.  In 1895, aged twenty, he enrolled in the life-classes at Académie Colarossi and revelled in the lifestyle of his fellow artists and the whole Paris café society scene.   Fergusson enthusiastically adopted the lifestyle of a Bohemian artist, mixing with the likes of Picasso and Matisse and he could often be seen frequenting the legendary cafés of the time, such as, Le Pre-Catalan Restaurant, the Cage Harcourt and the La Closerie des Lilas and it was in these places, surrounded by his artist acquaintances that he drew so much of his inspiration.   He easily settled into this unrestrictive café society of the Left Bank.  He was surrounded by the work of the Impressionists and would visit the public and private galleries such as Salle Caillebotte at the Musée du Luxembourg, where their works were on display.   Fergusson loved the French capital and for the next ten years spent his summers in Paris and the rest of the time in Edinburgh, where he had established a close productive working relationship with fellow Scottish Colourist, Samuel Peploe.   In 1897 Fergusson exhibited some of his work at the Royal Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts and the following year, spent time in central France, painting at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing, a small commune seventy kilometres south of Paris.   This River Loing setting often featured in the works of Alfred Sisley.  In 1899 Fergusson decided to go to Morocco and follow in the footsteps of Arthur Melville, the Scottish painter, who was famed for his Orientalist works, and who is now looked upon as being one of the most powerful influences in the contemporary art of his day.

Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)
Mademoiselle Dryden by J.D.Fergusson (1908)

It was during a painting trip at the seaside resort of Paris-Plage, in the summer of 1907 that Fergusson met two American ladies, Anne Estelle Rice and Elizabeth Dryden.   Elizabeth Dryden was an American writer and critic who had been sent to Paris in 1905 by her employer, the Philadelphia department store magnate, Lewis Rodman Wanamaker, to write fashion reviews for his Philadelphia department store trade magazine.   These reviews would then be illustrated by her friend Anne Estelle Rice, who was a sculptor and artist and who had worked as an illustrator on a number of magazines.   Both women featured in a number of paintings by Fergusson and he became great friends with them and Anne Estelle Rice later became Fergusson’s mistress.  In his 1908 painting of Elizabeth Dryden entitled Mademoiselle Dryden, Fergusson has depicted her clad not in the latest fashion but wearing a simple red scarf to keep out the chill with a painter’s smock worn loosely around her shoulders.

Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)
Rhythm by J.D. Fergusson (1911)

After his fully clothed portraits of Rice and Dryden it is quipped that from then on all his sitters had to remove their clothes and be in a state of undress!  In 1910, the English writer and critic, John Middleton Murray visited Fergusson’s Edinburgh studio.  He was about to launch a new literary, arts and critical review magazine.

Rhythm magazine cover
Rhythm magazine cover

Murray wanted to name the magazine after one of Fergusson’s paintings and have a drawing of it on the front cover.   Fergusson’s painting of a female nude was entitled Rhythm and that became the magazine’s title.  The cover of the magazine was elephant grey with Fergusson’s strong image of a naked woman sitting under a tree with an apple in her hand printed on it in black ink.  Fergusson became its art editor and through his many contacts in the art world was able to persuade artists such as Derrain, Picasso, and Delauny to provide illustrations for the magazine.  Anne Estelle Rice was also a regular contributor to the periodical.

Fergusson loved life in France and all the opportunities it afforded him to paint.  In the summers Fergusson would go on holiday and would often meet up with Peploe and his family in Brittany or Cassis in the south of France and for a short time Fergusson lived at Cap d’Antibes.

On his return to Paris he accepted the position as teacher at the Académie de la Palette and set up his studio in Montparnasse.  Fergusson was very happy with life at this time.  His long term partner Margaret Morris, whom he met in 1913, quoted Fergusson’s words describing his satisfaction with his Montparnasse studio and life in general in her 1974 book,  The Art of J.D.Fergusson:

“… [it was] comfortable, modern and healthy.   My concierge most sympathetic.  Life was as it should be and I was very happy.  The Dome, so to speak, round the corner; L’Avenue quite near; the Concert Rouge not far away – I was very much interested in music; the Luxembourg Gardens to sketch in; Colarossi’s class if I wanted to work from the model.  In short everything a young painter could want…”

Fergusson had met the dancer, choreographer, Margaret Morris in 1913.   She is now recognised for her pioneering work in modern dance.  She ran a dance school in London and that year had taken her dance troupe to Paris to dance at the Marigny Theatre on the Champs Elysees.  Fergusson and Morris later married and he became Art Director of all her MMM (Margaret Morris Movement) schools.  Fergusson and Morris were to remain together for almost fifty years.  The two built up a collection of friends from the literary greats of the time such as the novelist and playwright John Galsworthy, the Irish playwright George Bernard Shaw, the American ex-pat poet, Ezra Pound and the English writer and painter Wyndham Lewis.  Fergusson now had two homes and two distinct lives.  He had his base in Paris and the painting trips to the south of the country and he had the chance to stay with friends back in Britain, whether it was Samuel Peploe and his family in Edinburgh or his new friend Margaret Morris in London.

Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)
Christmas Time in the South of France by J.D.Fergusson (1922)

With the outbreak of the First World War he returned to Britain and, for the next four years, had to suffer the financial hardship brought about by the lack of sales of his work during the period of conflict.  After the war, he set up his own studio in London and this remained his base for the next ten years.  He exhibited his work on a regular basis and in 1928 he had four major exhibitions: in Chicago, London, Glasgow and New York.  In 1929, he along with Margaret Morris, returned to his beloved France and he set up his studio near the Parc de Montsouris, in Paris,  but always in the summers they made the trek south to live at Cap d’Antibes.  In 1939, at the start of the Second World War, Fergusson and Morris return to Britain and set up home in Glasgow and it was here that Fergusson spent the last years of his life.

Throughout his life Fergusson had rebelled against formal academic art and he now found himself a slightly beleaguered figure, who was neither a part of the academic fold nor was he welcomed by the Royal Scottish Academy.   Fergusson and his wife, Margaret Morris were leading lights in the Glasgow artistic scene and Fergusson did have his followers as many much younger artists were drawn to him and his art.  In 1940, he decided to form the New Art Club, and out of this emerged the New Scottish Group of painters of which he was the first president.

John Duncan Fergusson died in Glasgow in 1961, aged 87.   Throughout his life, whether he lived and worked in Paris, Antibes, London or Glasgow, his art was infused by his rebellious and independent nature.  He always maintained his belief in freedom of expression and his fervent commitment to a modern, non-academic art world.  He was a lover of colour which was summed up by a quote from him, recorded in William MacLellan’s 1943 book entitled J. D. Fergusson, Modem Scottish Painting.  Fergusson was quoted as saying:

“…Everyone in Scotland should refuse to have anything to do with black or dirty and dingy colours, and insist on clean colours in everything.   I remember when I was young any colour was considered a sign of vulgarity. Greys and blacks were the only colours for people of taste and refinement. Good pictures had to be black, grey, brown or drab. Well! let’s forget it, and insist on things in Scotland being of colour that makes for and associates itself with light, hopefulness, health and happiness…”

Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce

Jacob and Rachel by William Dyce (1853)

The first time I featured a painting by William Dyce was over twelve months ago (My Daily Art Display, May 14th 2011) when I looked at his painting Pegwell Bay, or to give it its full and bizarre title, Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858.   To find out why the painting had such a strange title you will have to check back on the earlier blog.

William Dyce was born in Aberdeen in 1806. His father was a fellow of the Royal Society and an eminent physician.  Dyce attended the Marischal College, which is now part of the University of Aberdeen.  He trained as a doctor before reading for the church. However the course of his life changed when aged nineteen he decided to become an artist and enrolled at the Royal Scottish Academy Schools in Edinburgh and later as a probationer at the Royal Academy of London.   At the age of nineteen he made his first trip to Rome and stayed there for nine months studying the works of the great Masters such as Titian, Rembrandt and Poussin.  He returned to Aberdeen but the following year he went back to Rome and this time stayed for eighteen months.   During this second visit to the Italian capital he met the German painter, Friedrich Overbeck, who was one of the leading artists of the Nazarene Movement.   The Nazarene Movement was made up of a group of early 19th century German Romantic painters who aimed to revive honesty and spirituality in Christian art. The name Nazarene came from a term of derision used against them for their affectation of a biblical manner of clothing and hair style.

By 1829 Dyce was back in Scotland and settled in Edinburgh for several years.  To survive financially he would carry out many portraiture commissions but his main love was his religious, history and narrative paintings.   In 1837, he was appointed Master of the School of Design of the Board of Manufactures in Edinburgh and produced a pamphlet on the management of schools like the one he was working at and this was well received, so much so, that he was transferred to London as superintendent and secretary of the recently established Government School of Design at Somerset House, which was later to become the Royal College of Art.   In 1844 he was appointed Professor of Fine Art in King’s College, London, and became an Associate of the Royal Scottish Academy, and in 1848 elected to become a  Royal Academician.

In 1850 Dyce married Jane Brand who was twenty-five years younger than him.  They went on to have four children.   He died at Streatham, Surrey in 1864, aged 58.

Today I am looking at a completely different type of painting by the artist in comparison to his seaside painting, Pegwell Bay.  This is a religious painting entitled The Meeting of Jacob and Rachel.  There were about four versions of this work by Dyce,  each of different size and with minor alterations but this one, which was completed by him in 1853,  is now housed in the Kunsthalle in Hamburg.  This was the original work and the only one which had a vase resting on the edge of the well.  The painting proved so popular with the public that Dyce commissioned Holman Hunt to make copies of it.

The painting is based on a story from the Old Testament book of Genesis (29: 9-14):

9 While he was still talking with them, Rachel came with her father’s sheep, for she was a shepherd. 10 When Jacob saw Rachel daughter of his uncle Laban, and Laban’s sheep, he went over and rolled the stone away from the mouth of the well and watered his uncle’s sheep. 11 Then Jacob kissed Rachel and began to weep aloud. 12 He had told Rachel that he was a relative of her father and a son of Rebekah. So she ran and told her father.  13 As soon as Laban heard the news about Jacob, his sister’s son, he hurried to meet him. He embraced him and kissed him and brought him to his home, and there Jacob told him all these things. 14 Then Laban said to him, “You are my own flesh and blood.”

This painting, Meeting of Jacob and Rachel, depicts the point in time just before Jacob kissed Rachel, and as the biblical text quotes the experience was so memorable, he lifted up his voice, and wept.  Jacob had fallen in love, at first sight, with this beautiful young woman, when he saw her standing at the well about to give water to her father’s flock of sheep.   Look at the way Dyce has portrayed Jacob.  The young man having just cast his eyes on his cousin is besotted with her.  He leans towards her almost balancing on one leg.  Look at his demeanour.  Look at the intensity of his expression as he looks into Rachel’s face. Look at his eagerness.   His emotions seem to be getting the better of him.  He clutches Rachel’s right hand and press it against his heart.  Maybe he wants her to feel how it is beating wildly.  His left hand rests on the nape of her neck.  He caresses her neck gently and at the same time his hand will guide her face towards his so that he may kiss her.  Now look at Rachel.  See how her expression differs from that of Jacob.  Her eyes are cast downwards in a gesture of modesty or is it coyness?  She cannot meet Jacob’s gaze.  The top half of her body leans away from Jacob and she steadies herself by placing her left hand on the well.

So does this meeting of man and woman result in a happy ending?  Well yes and no!   Rachel’s father, Laban was quite cunning and realised that Jacob was a young and strapping lad who could help out on the farm and so he offered him the hand of Rachel in the future, providing he would work for him.  Jacob agreed and worked for Laban for fourteen years without payment in the hope of getting the father’s blessing for his marriage to his daughter.  Then Laban made another condition for this marriage.  He wanted Jacob to first marry Rachel’s elder sister, Leah, after which he would be able to have Rachel as his wife.

So this is not just a story about young love but also a story of patient love and the way Jacob was willing to wait for Rachel.   This may have been uppermost in Dyce’s mind as it mirrored his relationship with his wife-to-be Jane Bickerton Brand who was born in 1831, for he was made to wait for her hand in matrimony as she was so young when they first met and the age difference of twenty-five years obviously further concerned her father.  William Dyce did wait and they did marry,  so all ended happily.