Samuel John Peploe (1871-1935)
Still Life c.1930
Oil on canvas 20 x 16 inches (50.8 x 40.6 cm)
Willie Peploe, the Artist’s Son, and thence by descent.
‘There is so much in mere objects, flowers, leaves, jugs, what-not – colours, forms, relation – I can never see the mystery coming to an end … ’ Samuel J. Peploe, 1929
Peploe is regarded as the best-known member of the Scottish Colourists, highly celebrated for his mastery of tone and colour. Although Peploe trained as a lawyer, from childhood he had shown great interest in painting and in 1894 he travelled to Paris to take classes at the Académie Julian, and later the Académie Colarossi. In Paris he witnessed the new avant-garde movements that were flourishing at that time, and was introduced to the work of leading artists such as Manet, Matisse and Cézanne, who had a powerful effect on his painting and the evolution of his own distinctive style.
The work of Peploe covers a wide range of genres, but he is best known for his experimentation with still life, a subject to which he returned again and again. Peploe approached still life in an intellectual and almost scientific way, always trying to depict the perfect example, a pursuit that dominated his career. He was always very meticulous in the construction of his composition, spending not hours but days setting up the objects and rearranging them over and over again until he was certain that the balance of colour and form was good enough for the picture to be painted. His aim was to achieve perfect harmony between the arrangement of forms, something which was essentially a Modernist concept. His devotion to painting the perfect still life transformed the genre to a status that defined not only his own work, but the entirety of Scottish modernism.
Peploe’s earliest still lifes were painted in smoothly modulated dark tones, with a strong chiaroscuro that evidently derived from Manet, and to a lesser extent the paintings of Velasquez. His exposure to the Fauves led Peploe to an explosion of jazzy and jarring primary colours in his paintings made around 1912-14. But after the end of the 1920s when the present painting was made, Peploe had evolved and shifted yet again to discover a new equilibrium and poise. The juxtaposition of soft pinks and greys, ochres and turquoise offer a lyrical harmony that is joyful yet calm. This palette is resonant of works by his peers such as Picasso, Braque, and subsequently Morandi. Their reversion to naturalism can be seen as a retreat from the avant-garde experimentation of the first two decades of the century.
Despite the free and fluid handling of his medium, descriptions of Peploe by those who knew him well testify to his fastidious working method. His best friend J.D. Fergusson greatly admired Peploe’s integrity. ‘In his painting,’ he wrote, ‘and in everything, he tried … to find the essentials by persistent trial. He worked all the time from nature but never imitated it’ (J.D. Fergusson, ‘Memories of Peploe’, 1945).
Similar paintings are in the collection of Aberdeen Art Gallery.