The Glasgow Boys – Pioneering Painters (1880-1900)

Since October 30th, the Royal Academy of Arts has been home to an exhibition featuring the art of the “Glasgow Boys”, including works of Arthur Melville, Sir James Gunthrie, John Lavery, George Henry, and E. A. Hornel. The Glasgow Boys were a group of young men, centered in Glasgow, who believed themselves revolutionaries in British art, adapting a naturalistic style (heavily influenced by the works of the French Naturalists, particularly Bastien-Lepage) which broke away from the stiff portraiture and dull colours that characterized 19th century traditional art.

Critics are divided between those who praise the Glasgow Boys as laying the foundation for the oncoming modernist movement, and those who see their art as void of inspiration and lacking authenticity. When I walked into the first exhibition room, I could see why the harsher critics sometimes describe the Boys’ work as too ‘normal’. At the beginning of the 1800’s, the subjects between them were not only very similar but very imitative of their artistic influences, mainly portraying rural countryside and peasant children in dirty, cold shades of browns and greys. Indeed, if you take Bastien-Lepage’s ‘Pauvre Fauvette’ and set it next to Gunthrie’s ‘A Hind’s Daughter’, the influence of the first’s work upon the latter’s is unmistakable.

During the 1885 spring exhibition at the Glasgow Institute of Fine Arts, the Boys came to a realization that images of Scotland’s peasants and countryside might not appeal to buyers. Thus, several began to find new subjects for their artwork. What followed was a beautiful change in colour and an impressive diversifying of subject matter, resulting in the sudden emergence of personal style (such a transition could clearly be seen in the chronologically-arranged exhibition). George Henry turned from rural naturalism to explore urban naturalism. His ‘Sundown’ (1887) by the river Clyde with the manufacturing buildings darkly painted in the settling dusk is a beautiful representation of globally industrial Glasgow, which by 1900 was the fifth largest city in Europe and the second city of the British Empire after London. Henry and Hornel’s ‘The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe’ (1890) was probably the main sight of the exhibition. The boldness of this painting takes you aback at first. Showing a stately procession of druids during the winter solstice, its size and array of colours dominates the room. Melville’s ‘Awaiting Audience with the Pasha’ and John Lavery’s ‘Tangier: The White City’ are both equally impressive in their colours and skill, and the observer is made to feel the ‘otherness’ of the Orient. In fact, Melville and Lavery’s, along with Henry and Hornel’s interest in Orientalism was to serve as a precursor to the interest generated in Orientalism as part of the modernist movement.

Some say the Boys were effaced from the chalk board of British art history upon the rise of their 20th century successors, the Scottish Colourists, yet in no way do I agree with this. Upon entering into the 20th century the Glasgow Boys were already acknowledged as the only British painters to achieve international recognition for their artwork, which was both influential and vital to the art schools that followed. And the beauty of the RAA’s exhibition was that you could easily follow the personal artistic maturation of several artists through the development in their paintings.

I would term the Glasgow Boys ‘transitionalists’, as they were prematurely dealing with concepts which would emerge in the years to come, struggling upon the cusp of the complete and radical change of art, society, and mentality the modernist movement would introduce.

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