Henry Herbert La Thangue RA, Violets for Perfume
, oil on canvas, c. 1913
© Royal Academy of Arts, London
obituary in 1929 remembered La Thangue for his 'vigorous representations of Mediterranean subjects' painted 'generally in dappled light and a strongly personal note in the colour, bronze and violet predominating'. As a work from La Thangue's later period, given to the Royal Academy as his Diploma Work, Violets for Perfume
well illustrates this description. The Magazine of Art
noted in 1904: 'Subjects such as goat herding, orange growing, the culture of the violet have employed his energies and inspired his art', but also saw La Thangue's recording of 'the local industries of the country' as supplying 'material for the historian'. La Thangue himself seemed conscious that the kind of rural life he depicted was fast disappearing; he idealised the lot of his farm labourers, whom he saw as living simple, idyllic lives.
La Thangue made little use of the studio, and occupied one for only a short time when he lived in Chelsea. Otherwise, as George Clausen RA described in 1931, 'he would never paint except with the object before him: holding this to be the only way and that its limitations were balanced by the general truth obtained. This practise he kept to throughout his life.' Clausen also worked in the open air, making many sketches before starting a canvas, but he wrote admiringly that La Thangue, 'so far as I know … never made studies or sketches for his pictures, but planned them out on the actual canvas … This is very unusual and means a lot of preliminary thinking.'
Despite La Thangue's insistence on plein-air
painting, he frequently resorted to certain favourite compositional motifs. For instance, Violets for Perfume
shows his characteristic use of a strong diagonal to lead the eye sharply to some further activity in the middle distance. However, in contrast to his often stiffly posed workers, the movement of the principal figure appears fluent. The painting depicts a woman tipping a basket of freshly picked violets onto a muslin sheet in preparation for perfume making.
His distinctive technique, with broad brushstrokes and heavy impasto, was the subject of much debate. A critic of 1889 in the Scottish Arts Review
, discussing the execution of La Thangue's work and others of the 'Square Brush School', thought that because they 'leave the brush marks and do not smooth away the evidence of method' they were 'insisting on the way the picture is painted perhaps at the sacrifice of subtleties in the subject'. However, Walter Sickert RA upheld the merits of this technique in The New Age
in 1914, considering that in using 'an opaque mosaic for recording objective sensations about visible nature, [La Thangue] is using it in a personal manner … the fact that La Thangue does not give us, ready-made, and over again, the gamut of Monet … is just what gives La Thangue his reason for existence.' In Violets for Perfume
, La Thangue's characteristic devices are, as always, employed to serve the subject, on which he most loved to dwell; for, according to Clausen, 'it was primarily, the beauty of things in sunlight that excited him'.
Violets for Perfume
is currently on show in Edwardian Opulence: British Art at the Dawn of the Twentieth Century
at the Yale Center for British Art, New Haven, Connecticut, until 2 June 2013.