George Clausen 1852-1944
A Village Woman (Mrs Wilson)
Oil on canvas 18 x 14 inches (45.7 x 35.5 cm) Signed b.r.
Social recording was one of the principles on which George Clausen’s art was based. He had grown up surrounded by imagery that valorised ordinary people. In his youth for instance, papers such as The Illustrated London News and The Graphic often carried full page depictions of ‘Heads of the People’, showing types from all walks of life depicted by contemporary artists. The impact of these images was profound, and in later years, when he had moved permanently to the Essex countryside, his scenes of rural labour were often intercut with head studies of particular models, one of whom, Mrs Wilson, ‘a woman of the village’, is shown in the present example.
The ‘village’ in this instance was Widdington. The Clausens moved there in 1890 after spending the previous five years in Berkshire. Leaving the marshes and woodlands of the Thames valley for the hills of north Essex had been a liberation and although the family was settled, when, by 1904, the artist was appointed Professor of Painting at the Royal Academy Schools, a return to London became necessary. Widdington had however served him well and major Impressionist paintings were produced there. Evening Song, 1893 for instance had inaugurated a sequence of formidable plein air scenes of fieldworkers while one of the final Widdington canvases, Gleaners Coming Home, 1904 (Tate), shows a group of women returning from the fields in the flickering sunlight of a summer evening. The central heroic figure bearing a huge bundle and with a wheatsheaf tied to her waist was modelled by Mrs Wilson. (Studies for this pose are contained in the Holburne Museum, Bath, and the Victoria and Albert Museum, London).
Clausen was working from this specific villager in June 1903 when a drawing related directly to the present picture was made. At that point the artist was beginning to conceive the full Gleaners ... painting in which she would figure, and which would be his major contribution to the Royal Academy exhibition the following year. Letters indicate that this remained his principal task throughout the winter preceding the exhibition, but as on other occasions, a substantial body of supplementary work emerges in smaller oils, prints and drawings.
The present head study is one of these. Once it was completed, Clausen is likely to have moved on to two others from what now had become his favourite model - A Woman of the Village, purchased by Manchester City Art Gallery in 1906, and The Listener (untraced) shown at the Royal Academy in 1905.
These and the present oil are identical in size, but the rougher surfaces of the latter two suggest that they followed, rather than preceded the present work. It is clear from the initial drawing that the artist was attracted to the subject’s facial bone structure – which for one later reviewer became emblematic of the English peasant type. The strident plein air colouring of the Manchester work in particular, differentiates it from the sensitive perception of indoor lighting in the present work, and while the similarities between all three are obvious, the present example is a study for neither.
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