Description: signed, inscribed Quimperle and dated 1882
oil on canvas
Dimensions: 86.5 by 76cm., 34 by 30in.
Exhibited: London, Royal Academy, 1883, no.1467;
London, Dowdeswell's Gallery, 1890, details untraced.
Literature: Mrs Lionel Birch, Stanhope A.Forbes, A.R.A, and Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes, A.R.W.S., Cassell and Company, London, 1906, pp.22-24, illustrated in colour facing p.22;
Betsy Coggar-Rezelman, The Newlyn Artists and their place in late-Victorian Art, University of Indiana, unpublished Doctorate Thesis, 1984;
Caroline Fox & Francis Greenacre, Painting in Newlyn 1880-1930, Barbican Art Gallery, London, 1985, p.53;
Kenneth McConkey, Impressionism in Britain, Yale University Press, New Haven and London 1995, p.25;
Caroline Fox, Stanhope Forbes and the Newlyn School, David & Charles, Newton Abbot, 1997, pp.14-16, illustrated, p.16;
Adrian Jenkins, Painters & Peasants: Henry La Thangue and British Rural Naturalism 1880-1905, Bolton Museum and Art Gallery, 2000, pp.58-65.
Notes: Like virtually all the significant artists of his generation, Forbes had made the pilgrimage to France in 1880, settling first in Paris, where he enrolled at Bonnat's studio. In July 1881, in company with Henry La Thangue, Forbes set out for Brittany, where the two artists moved along the coast to Cancale, near St.Malo. John Singer Sargent had painted his first major plein air work, The Oyster Gatherers of Cancale (coll. Corcoran Gallery of Art, Washington D.C.) there in 1878, and although poor transport links made it less of a draw to artists than some other Breton coastal towns, their stay was important for the development of the 'square brush' technique in which Forbes freely acknowledged he took his lead from La Thangue.
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The first major work produced on this trip, painted in the late summer, was A Street in Brittany, shown at the Royal Academy and bought by the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool the following year. Forbes was later to recognise that this early purchase of a painting by an institution was instrumental in his decision to become an open-air artist rather than a portraitist. Despite some inaccuracies of scale and perspective and evident difficulties in the painting, the picture has a good deal of charm and the depiction of the model is an excellent essay in 'square brush' technique.
The summer of 1882 found Forbes in Brittany once more with La Thangue. This time they chose Quimperlé, a less popular location than either Pont-Aven or Concarneau. La Thangue seemed not to like it and left for England in early June, leaving Forbes alone. The trip was however fruitful for Forbes and in July 1882 he wrote to his mother to ask her to persuade his wealthy uncle James Staats Forbes to give up first refusal on The Convent in favour of James Maddocks, a wealthy Bradford industrialist and important patron of La Thangue (he had purchased La Thangue's important Boat Building Yard (coll. National Maritime Museum, London) in 1881). The deal was clearly facilitated as the painting entered Maddock's collection and was also exhibited the following year at the Royal Academy.
The painting itself demonstrates not only how far Forbes had progressed since the previous year, but also the degree to which he had assimilated the work of his contemporaries. In the spring of 1882, Tooth's spring exhibition had included Pas Mêche by Jules Bastien-Lepage (coll. National Gallery of Scotland, Edinburgh), a large canvas of a ragged small boy. As Bastien-Lepage was seen as the doyen of the naturalist painters, it seems very likely that Forbes would have known this painting and the pose of the boy, left hand on hip and right hand holding a switch over his shoulder, is almost exactly reproduced in The Convent. A contemporary work by George Clausen, Breton Girl Carrying a Jar (coll. Victoria & Albert Museum, London), also borrows the stance, but Forbes uses it as part of a larger composition rather than as a single figure, here presenting a seated girl holding a toy boat by the standing boy. The two figures are placed on the near bank of a river which slides placidly by, giving shimmering reflections of the convent building beyond. There is a lightness and simplicity to the composition and palette which come together with remarkable success.
That The Convent was considered by contemporaries as an example of Forbes at his best may be seen in an anonymous hand-written note in the catalogue of an 1890 exhibition held at Dowdeswell's London Gallery, now in the collection of the Victoria & Albert Museum. By the entry for The Convent is written simply:
'This was when Forbes knew how to paint light'