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Peploe and France

Like many British artists at the end of the nineteenth century, S.J. Peploe spent time as an art student in Paris, studying at the Académie Julian for periods between 1891 and 1894. He also took an intellectual interest in modern French painting including among his extensive reading matter George Moore’s ‘Modern Painting’, published in 1893.

Following his studies Peploe returned to Edinburgh but realised that there was little or no chance to see impressionist art in the capital. Although in Glasgow the art dealer Alexander Reid stocked pictures by Degas as well as examples of Claude Monet, Alfred Sisley and Camille Pissarro, Peploe continued to return to Paris and his work began to show the influence of Impressionism and Édouard Manet in particular.

The Black Bottle, Samuel John Peploe, 1905

In 1903 Peploe had his first solo exhibition, at the Scottish Gallery in Edinburgh. The show received mixed reviews and it was clear that the art establishment was still suspicious of French art. Around this time Peploe and fellow Scottish Colourist J.D. Fergusson began to travel annually to France, stopping off in Paris before continuing to the Normandy coast. As his style evolved Peploe’s palette became much bolder, primary colours invaded the canvas and the paint handling was more vigorous. He also began treating the subject matter in a more overtly modern way, which suggests an awareness of Henri Matisse.

The summer of 1910 marked a definitive change in Peploe’s style, particularly noticeable in his paintings of Royan, which are distinctive for their vivid colour and bold technique:  at times he applied paint directly from the tube and areas of primed canvas were allowed to shine through, creating a sense of light and movement. Yet, perhaps the most striking feature of these works was his use of colour to delineate form. At the end of the summer Peploe settled in Paris, where he was to live for two years. He was welcomed into Fergusson’s group of friends and it was through the fellow Scot that Peploe began to regularly contribute to the modernist journal, ‘Rhythm’.

Peploe also became particularly interested in the work of the fauve artist, Othon Friesz. At the same time Vincent van Gogh also attracted his attention and, from around 1912, Peploe began to experiment with Van Gogh’s vivid but essentially naturalistic palette and expressive brushstrokes, whilst also assimilating the main features of Fauvism.

Boats at Royan, Samuel John Peploe, 1910

Peploe probably kept his studio in Paris until the early summer of 1913 by which date Georges Braque and Pablo Picasso had astonished the world with their cubist still lifes and portraits. Peploe was mildly interested in their analysis of space and form, producing a group of ‘cubistic’ still lifes in around 1912. However, he remained a fauve at heart.

Still Life, Samuel John Peploe, 1913

From the impressionists, and Sisley in particular, Peploe developed an understanding of the joy and importance of painting outdoors in front of the motif. In 1913 Peploe made his first trip to the Cote d’Azur and Cassis where many artists were working, including Fergusson. Peploe travelled three further times to Cassis after the war, with his last visit probably in 1930. By this point trees were a common theme in his paintings and colours were more muted, demonstrating the influence of Paul Cézanne, whose work he had studied intently immediately after the First World War.

Still Life with Roses and Fan, Samuel John Peploe, 1920

Peploe’s exposure to French art therefore played a major role in the development of his style. From Manet he learned to paint instinctively and spontaneously; from Sisley he realised the pleasure of painting en plein air; from Friesz he learned to apply colour expressively without abandoning the internal ‘rhythm’ of his compositions; and from Cézanne he discovered a more subtle analysis of form and colour. Moreover, in Paris Peploe was able to immerse himself in the intellectual environment, absorbing the latest modernist debates. From the outset, Peploe’s art was defined as ‘Franco-Scottish’ and he succeeded in his ability to assimilate French art while retaining his Scottish identity.

Adapted from the essay in SJ Peploe Exhibition Catalogue by Frances Fowle