Sir George Clausen, RA, RWS (British, 1852-1944) Marie, a peasant girl of Quimperlé

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Lot 113
Sir George Clausen, RA, RWS
(British, 1852-1944)
Marie, a peasant girl of Quimperlé

Sold for £ 77,500 (US$ 101,333) inc. premium
Sir George Clausen, RA, RWS (British, 1852-1944)
Marie, a peasant girl of Quimperlé
signed, inscribed and dated '1882/G. CLAUSEN./QUIMPERLE' (lower right)
oil on canvas
35 x 31.3cm (13 3/4 x 12 5/16in).


  • Provenance
    Sharpley Bainbridge Esq., Lincoln; sale, Christie's, London, 10 February 1922, lot 115.
    Barbizon House, London, 1922.
    Private collection, UK.
    Thence by descent to the present owner.

    London, Grosvenor Gallery, 1883, no. 120 (titled Marie).
    London, Barbizon House, 1922 (titled Peasant Girl of Quimperlé).

    David Croal Thomson, Barbizon House Record, 1922, (privately published) n.p. no. 8 (illustrated).
    Kenneth McConkey, George Clausen and the Picture of English Rural Life, Edinburgh, 2012, fig. 68, pp. 52, 53, 215 note 42 (illustrated p. 52).

    In August 1882 Stanhope Forbes was pleased to report to his mother that, 'La Thangue tells me he is sending me G Clausen the painter and his wife. Very glad as he is a really good painter, in fact belongs to the sacred band whom even I admire'.1 Forbes was excited at the thought of Clausen's arrival in Brittany because when he and La Thangue had reached Quimperlé earlier in the summer, his companion had quickly decamped, leaving him to work on in the village alone. His friend Blandford Fletcher had paid a brief visit, but Clausen was already a much more influential figure, and while all at this point were part of a 'sacred band', it was Clausen, with an exhibiting profile stretching back some eight years, who was already a man of influence.

    The previous year, as Forbes would have known, Clausen had left London in order to live and work in the fields on the Childwickbury estate in Hertfordshire. The move was prompted by the belief that the painter's essential role was as a recorder of life, in intimate daily contact with nature, in a precise locality. This conviction, in large measure, derived from the work of Jules Bastien-Lepage, hero of the Paris Salon, and the young French painter who was currently taking London by storm.2 One had, in the words of Bastien-Lepage, to find one's own coin de terre.

    Clausen duly arrived and spent around a month in Quimperlé, painting two canvases of peasant girls – of which the present rediscovery is one. He and his wife, Agnes Mary, then left for Paris at the end of October where, for a further week or two, he sampled the ambiance of the atelier Julian. Forbes found this rather odd. On 4 November he wrote, 'Strange of Clausen to study in Paris but quite the right thing I am sure. He will be a great painter some day'. 3

    He must not have realized that the whole expedition was a fact-finding exercise. It is nevertheless the case that Clausen would have seen Forbes's current projects – his 'church' and 'orchard' paintings – and witnessed the struggle of a young artist coping with the changeable, often inclement, autumn conditions in Brittany.4 It is tempting to conclude that the two artists worked side-by-side at this point, especially when we compare Clausen's only other canvas dating from these weeks, Breton Girl Carrying a Jar, with Forbes's Breton Children in an Orchard - but there is no evidence for this (figs 1&2). Forbes's work may be more ambitious, but Clausen's is tackled with much greater confidence and control. Where the former produces what is essentially a genre picture, the latter makes a tougher, almost 'manifesto' statement.

    This is confirmed in the relationship struck between the present canvas and that in the Victoria and Albert Museum collection. Both show Clausen's Breton model, full-face, eyes-forward, confronting the spectator. Both are expressionless. Inferences, if any, come from us. In 1880 Clausen had been one of the 'little knot of worshippers' who frequented the Grosvenor Gallery to study its special feature that year. This consisted of ten canvases by Bastien-Lepage including his controversial Salon exhibit of 1878, Les Foins (Musée d'Orsay, Paris). However, more pertinent in relation to the present portrait was the tiny jewel-like picture of Lucie Bastien, the painter's cousin, en communiante (fig 3). Here was something strangely Holbein-esque in its directness, and the memory of stuck. 'All his personages', Clausen would later write of Lepage's work, '... are placed before us in the most satisfying completeness, without the appearance of artifice, but as they live; and without comment, as far as is possible, on the author's part'.5

    Documentary objectivity of a strictly scientific kind took precedence over diverting detail and implied narrative. Thus the Peasant Girl of Quimperlé makes an audacious claim – that 'life-history' is contained in the faces of 'workaday human beings'.

    Having shown twice at the Grosvenor Gallery in recent years, Clausen prepared three pictures for its forthcoming exhibition in the spring of 1883. These were Winter Work, (Tate), Haytime (Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto) and a small, lost picture entitled Marie. Most reviewers discussed the larger works, save for one who referred to 'the head of a French peasant girl "Marie" (120) ... [which] shows also great ability, but it is too obviously an imitation of the work of M. Bastien-Lepage'.6 Since no other French peasant head study has come to light it seems logical to accept that the present lot is indeed the lost Marie. The nervousness about its 'imitation' of Lepage is also one of the earliest expressions of a xenophobia that rose to a crescendo in art criticism in the years up to the founding of the New English Art Club in 1886. The English School was 'in peril', according John Ruskin, and it was Clausen who would, more than anyone, defend a movement which within ten years, led to the flowering of British Impressionism.7

    At this time, Marie, as the Peasant Girl of Quimperlé, had entered the collection of the Lincoln retailer, Sharpley Bainbridge JP. Advised by Clausen's brother-in-law, Alfred Webster, Bainbridge was the artist's most loyal early patron. After his death, the painting was acquired for Barbizon House, by Clausen's old friend, David Croal Thomson, who had been his dealer back in the 1880s when he worked for Goupil et Cie. Thomson wrote of it, 'As a piece of technical achievement in pure and sincere painting this little picture is worthy to rank with the most accomplished compositions ... Mr Clausen has painted many more important pictures, but he has never excelled the quality of this captivating canvas'.8At this point, the girl's name was lost, but her 'captivating' face remained as arresting as it does today.

    We are grateful to Professor Kenneth McConkey for his assistance in cataloguing this lot.

    1 Stanhope Forbes letter to his mother, 25 August 1882, Hyman Kreitman Archive, Tate Britain.
    2 For Clausen's early career see McConkey 2012, pp. 19-43; for British followers of Bastien-Lepage see Kenneth McConkey, 'Un petit cercle de thuriféraires: Bastien-Lepage et la Grande-Bretagne', 48/14, La revue du Musée d'Orsay, 2007, pp. 20-33.
    3 Letter dated 5 November 1882, Hymna Kreitman Archive, Tate. The precise dates of the Clausens stay in Brittany are unknown.
    4 Forbes was currently at work on The Church of St David, Quimperlé, and Breton Children in an Orchard, having just completed The Old Convent, Quimperlé (all Private collections). Elsewhere in his letters Forbes notes that bright days were reserved for the orchard, while dull days for the church.
    5 George Clausen, 'Bastien-Lepage and Modern Realism', The Scottish Art Review, Vol. I, no 5, October 1888, p. 114 (Clausen's italics).
    6 'The Grosvenor Gallery', The Globe, 30 April 1883, p. 6.
    7 George Clausen, 'The English School in Peril – A Reply', The Magazine of Art, 1887-8, pp. 222-4; quoted in McConkey, 2012, pp. 77-8.
    8 David Croal Thomson, Barbizon House Record, 1922, (privately published) n.p. no 8, (illustrated).
Sir George Clausen, RA, RWS (British, 1852-1944) Marie, a peasant girl of Quimperlé
Sir George Clausen, RA, RWS (British, 1852-1944) Marie, a peasant girl of Quimperlé
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