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An unadorned aesthetic

By Christopher Andreae / December 9, 1998



A group of Scottish West Coast painters of the later 19th century have come to be known as "the Glasgow Boys." If the term "boys" suggests youthful determination to break with conventions, "Glasgow" does not mean they painted the city. Among the first "Glasgow Boys" were James Guthrie, E.A. Walton, James Paterson, and W.Y. Macgregor. They were friends, learning from each other by working together.

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Macgregor (1885-1923) practiced, with Paterson, a realism that presented the tangible, factual character of the countryside through directness of paint and brushwork. Anecdotal sentimentality was avoided.

They were aware of the modern realism of French painting, but were attracted less to the Impressionists than to the rigorous ruralism stemming from the earlier painters Courbet, Corot, and Millet. They admired a painter called Bastien-Lepage whose rather dry, subdued paintings depicted peasants in a country that was hardly idyllic.

The Glasgow painters must also have known the work of a group of artists on the East Coast of Scotland. These East Lothian painters included Arthur Melville, one of whose pictures shows a laborer in "A Cabbage Garden." Six years later, in 1883, Guthrie painted "A Hind's Daughter." It shows a sturdy country child, self-possessedly cutting cabbages in a field. And a year after that, Macgregor finished "The Vegetable Stall." It is a collection of unexotic vegetables, fruits of Scottish earth. A still life, it looks like local market produce for sale, not a studio arrangement.

Turnips, carrots, onions, cabbages (green and purple), leaks, and potatoes are all painted with bold square strokes, their mass and fiber, their coarseness of stalk, root, or leafage invested with undeniable authenticity.

He paints these commonplace and earthy crops with the kind of knowing matter-of-factness that had gone into their cultivation.

At the same time, the painting has a rough beauty consistent with the rough beauty of its subject. These are plain vegetables for ordinary people, roots that have been stored through the winter, greens that can stand in the frozen ground until harvested. The only exception, both in contrasting color and tenderness, is the rhubarb, placed with apparent casualness to make a visual rhyme between the white at the foot of its stems, and the white of the blanched leaks.

This rhubarb must have been "forced" - that is, made by special protection to grow early. The undeveloped, yellow-green leaves indicate this, as does the stalks' deep, clean, acid-tongued red.