In the Fields, Dannes Pas de Calais (Gathering Potatoes) 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.)
Provenance: with Aitken Dott to the family of the present owner by 1945
Exhibited: London, New English Art Club, 1888, no.44 Manchester, City Art Gallery, Autumn Exhibition, 1910, no.72
Literature: Globe, 9 April 1888 Pall Mall Gazette, 11 April 1888 Pall Mall Gazette 'Extra', 1888, p.86 (illus) The Saturday Review, 14 April 1888, p.443 R.A.M. Stevenson, George Clausen, The Art Journal , 1890, p.290 (illus as Digging Potatoes), 293
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, a popluar artists' colony, but on this occasion, he headed for the tiny village of Dannes, a few miles from the sea to the north of Etaples (1). The large open landscapes of the area contrasted with that of his immediate surroundings at Cookham Dean in Berkshire. An inscription on the reverse of Gathering Potatoes indicates that it was painted in the immediate environs of the village. Whilst the interior, A Normandy Peasant (fig 1, The Potteries Museum, Stoke-on-Trent), has until now been the only work confidently ascribed to the visit, a note in the artist's account book makes it clear that other works carried out on the visit were primarily landscape studies(2).
For Clausen, the space, light and colours of this terrain recalled the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, his mentor, and the leading exponent of the école naturaliste. Clausen's thorough understanding of this important strand of contemporary painting was made clear in 1888 when he published an essay - 'Bastien Lepage and the Modern Realism' - in The Scottish Art Review. The tenet of the Bastien-Lepage creed was complete objectivity - painting 'without the appearance of artifice...and without comment, as far as possible on the author's part(3). 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 (fig 2, 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 Hotel Drouot in Paris in 1885(4). 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(5). 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). Clausen goes back a stage in the process and observes a stooping peasant woman, dramatically foreshortened as she lifts her crop. As the staple rustic food of Northern Europe these humble vegetables in the centre of Van Gogh's The Potato Eaters, 1885 (Van Gogh Museum, Amsterdam), were treated with great reverence.
Comparisions with Bastien-Lepage are much closer when the spatial setting is considered - a wide expanse of countryside leading to gently undulating hills. Viewpoint is significant in that Clausen was among the first to recognize that the French painter sought to give the impression of a real life encounter. On one occasion, he observed important differences of eye-line between someone standing in a landscape and the normal seated position of the landscape painter working under the shade of a sketching umbrella. Bastien-Lepage had made this point:
'When you sit down to paint, you naturally see things quite differently from the way you see them standing. Sitting you see more sky and you have more objects - trees, houses, or living beings standing out sharply in silhouette against the sky...But it is not the way we normally see a landscape. We look at it standing, and then the objects, animate and inanimate, that are nearest to us, instead of being seen in profile against the sky, are silhouetted upon the trees, or upon the fields, grey or green'(6).
Whilst a painter like Corot might select his motif from a selection of the visual field in the middle distance, naturalist principles demanded solid connections between the figure in the immediate foreground and the deep space of the receding plane(7). The painter was conscious of the effects of 'depth of field' in photography. How were these to be acheived in his medium?
In the winter of 1887-8 Clausen evidently felt that he needed to challenge himself yet again with these questions. Although The Stone Pickers, shown at the previous New English Art Club exhibition, had been approved by critics, the problem of recession in the picture was effectively solved by placing the figures on a sloping hillside(8). A flat plain without obvious perspectives or spatial cues, gave a more challenging set of circumstances. Clausen's other current work, a half-length study of a fieldworker, The Ploughboy (unlocated), shown at the Grosvenor Gallery in the spring of 1888, did not address the problem and it was only resolved satisfactorily on a grand scale in the panoramic vista of Ploughing 1889 (Aberdeen Art Gallery).
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 (fig.3), and later surveys of his work recognized its importance in his development(9).
Recalling the picture in 1890, RAM Stevenson declared,
'Some people were inclined to detract from the merit of the work non the score of its resemblance to Bastien-Lepage...the mere fact of similarity of subject goes for little; everyone who does genuine open air work in the country has painted peasants. Given the mere title of a picture such as 'Ploughboy' or 'Digging Potatoes' [the present work], no treatment, no modelling, no aerial development is given with it. All these each artist must contribute afresh for himself in this sort of close realism'(10).
Clausen had 'more breadth, more freshness, more envelopment than Bastien-Lepage'(10). For him it was a matter of refining and perfecting the techniques of the observer(12). Although he later amended his views on Naturalism, Clausen returned on several occasions throughout his career to the theme of rustics digging potatoes. In Allotment Gardens, (Private Collection), his Academy-piece of 1899, the woman with her spade is repeated, this time in side view within a composition more overtly Millet-esque(13). Then around 1926, he returned to the subject in The Potato-Gatherers, (unlocated), a work in which the figures are dwarfed by the landscape.
These reiterations a dozen and more years later, suggest that the encounter with a woman digging in the fields at Dannes was more portentous than it at first appears.
1 There was a small colony of painters at Etaples in 1887 which included Frank O'Meara and the American, Eugene Vail. Clausen's contact with them has not been established. For reference to his work at Quimperlé, see Kenneth McConkey, Sir George Clausen RA, 1852-1944, 1980 (Tyne & Wear and Bradford Museums), pp. 37-8.
2 The artist's account entry for 3 December 1887, lists the titles of his recently completed work. For further reference to A Normandy Peasant see McConkey, 1980, p.47. Apart from A Normandy Peasant and Gathering Potatoes, Clausen is known to have executed a picture described as 'Back Garden, Dannes' and a number of 'pochade' seascapes during this visit.
3 George Clausen, 'Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism', The Scottish Art Review, vol 1, 1888, p.114
4 See Marie-Madeleine Aubrun, Jules Bastien-Lepage, 1848-1884, catalogue raisonné, 1985, (Paris, privately printed), pp.155-8 (no 217)
5 These are listed as G217A and G217B in Aubrun, 1985, p.156.
6 André Theuriet, Jules Bastien-Lepage and his Art, A Memoir, 1892 (T Fisher Unwin), p.73.
7 Rediscovery of the present canvas makes it possible for us to re-assign a group of other drawings some of which are in pastel, (Royal Academy of Arts and other collections), and which tackle the problem of conveying recession.
8 McConkey 1980, pp.45-6
9 The drawing (9x8 ins) passed through the Fine Art Society in 1986 (Spring '86, no.136)
10 RAM Stevenson, 'George Clausen', The Art Journal, 1890, p.293
11 Ibid. This article also illustrates a study for one of the tiny figures in the background of Gathering Potatoes, from a drawing in the artist's sketchbook.
12 Around the time of Stevenson's article, the verso inscription indicates that Clausen retouched Gathering Potatoes. Since there are no obvious signs of damage and composition remains unaltered from that shown in 1888, we assume that these alterations were minor.
13 McConkey, 1980, pp.70-1
We are very grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.