The Glasgow Boys were a loose group of young artists that represented the beginnings of modernism in Scottish painting. In the early 1880s, 'the boys’ were united by their disillusionment with traditional academic painting, with its strong focus on historical subjects and high levels of finish. Instead, they painted contemporary rural subjects, often working out of doors and painting directly onto the canvas.
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Glasgow: The Second City of the Empire
At the end of the 19th century, Glasgow ranked as one of the finest and richest cities in Europe. With its grand public buildings and a host of museums, galleries, and libraries, Glasgow was the undoubted 'The Second City of the Empire'. This economic success led to a growing appreciation of creativity and a thriving art market emerged. The city was home to a number of wealthy industrialists and mercantile collectors. Their new homes were less suited to traditional pictures showing grand history scenes or dramatic landscapes of the mountainous highlands. Instead, they had developed a taste for modern European art. Commercial Glasgow art dealers such as Craibe Angus and Alexander Reid were displaying works by Barbizon and Hague School artists in the windows of their dealerships.
The Draw of Realism
One painter in particular attracted the attention of ‘the boys’; the French realist painter Jules Bastien-Lepage (1848-1884). He was breaking with tradition and painting something new – the real life that surrounded him in his home town. Another aspect of modern European painting that was attractive to 'the boys’ was painting out of doors or 'en plein-air'. Their approach was unsentimental and straightforward, a massive shift from the smooth finish of academic painting. James Guthrie (1859-1930) and the other Glasgow painters were exposed to Bastien-Lepage’s work in Paris, London, and at the Glasgow Institute, and were inspired by his treatment of his subject and surroundings.
The strong influence of both French and Dutch realism was inspiring for the younger generation of Glasgow artist, who although never a formal group, had come to be known collectively as ‘the boys’. The leaders of the group included James Guthrie, who was mostly self-taught, and the Irish-born John Lavery (1856-1941) who, like many of his contemporaries trained in Paris and worked at the artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing. Based in and around Glasgow, the artists exchanged ideas in the Bath Street studios of William York Macgregor (1855-1923) or through working in groups at Cockburnspath (Berwickshire) and Kirkcudbright. The newly founded Fine Art Institute and Glasgow Art Club provided outlets for young artists to sell their work as well as exhibiting space for some of the leading continental artists.
Developing an Individual Style
By the late 1880s, several of these artists were beginning to take an interest in Impressionism, Celtic design and the brilliant colours and flattened forms of Japanese prints. Their work was characterised by bold, vigorous, painterly handling and an increasing emphasis on the decorative. George Henry (1858-1943) and Edward Atkinson Hornel (1864-1933) traveled to Japan in 1893-4, while Arthur Melville (1855-1904), who is closely associated with the group, preferred the colour and exoticism of Spain, North Africa, and the Middle East.
International Recognition and Legacy
From the early 1880s to 1895, the Glasgow Boys produced some of their most innovative works. They were exhibited with great success internationally, not just in Europe but also in America. Alexander Reid, who acted as Guthrie’s agent, gave Hornel and Joseph Crawhall (1861-1913) their first solo exhibitions and was a huge encouragement to them. In 1890 the Glasgow Boys exhibited their work to great acclaim in London and at the Munich International.
Their creative energy seems to have evaporated after 1895 when personal commercial interests began to curb their vitality. By the late 1890s, many of the group moved to London where they chose to concentrate on portraits and more saleable works. However, as a group, they left a legacy which was to have a profound effect on painting in Scotland over the next fifty years.