JD Fergusson at the Scottish National Gallery of Modern Art

Les Eus, c.1913, JD Fergusson
Les Eus, c.1913, JD Fergusson

JD Fergusson was born in 1874 and was an active artist until his death in 1961. Brought up in Edinburgh he was a proud Scot though he spent much of his working life in Paris and London, returning to Scotland to live only in 1939.

Fergusson is typically categorised as one of the Scottish Colourists as if the Colourists were some sort of defined school or movement. In fact it was a categorisation of four Scottish artists born in the late C19, Fergusson, Cadell, Peploe and Hunter, created by a commercial gallery for marketing their work. In practice, they have little in common except living in a similar time, some acquaintance with France and late C19 French painting and a love of colour.

This exhibition of Fergusson’s work is the last in a series of four exhibitions over three years dedicated to each of the four artists and effectively revealing that perhaps more divided than united them. Fergusson is by far the most international of the four, spending much of his most productive years living and working in Paris; he was the most revolutionary in his outlook and ambition and he is the one member of the so-called group who can really be seen as having been an active participant in the birth of “modern art”.

Fergusson also loved women, the company of women and painting women and the female form. Many of his most powerful, innovative and important works are centred on women. He had a series of strong relationships with capable women, culminating in his long partnership with Margaret Morris, the dancer and dance school pioneer, who he met in 1913 and with whom he stayed until his death.

The White Dress: Portrait of Jean, 1904, JD Fergusson
The White Dress: Portrait of Jean, 1904, JD Fergusson

The first woman to feature strongly in his work was Jean Maconochie, a member of his social circle in Edinburgh. The exhibition includes two life size portraits of her which are very powerful and would sit comfortable alongside the work of John Singer Sargeant, who was some 18 years his senior.

Fergusson first visited Paris in 1897 but moved to live there around 1906, largely as a result of meeting Anne Estelle Rice, an American and a successful artist in her own right who was already living there. His work developed fast and very significantly from living in Paris and being in the company of people such as Picasso, Epstein and Gertrude Stein. Following on from Toulouse-Lautrec and Degas he was fascinated by cafe life and it featured regularly in his work. The picture below combines his love of cafe life with his love of painting women, featuring milliners assistants from nearby fashion houses.

La Terrasse, Cafe D'Harcourt, c.1908, JD Fergusson
La Terrasse, Cafe D’Harcourt, c.1908, JD Fergusson

He also painted during this period a number of masterful, large scale female portraits. One of the most impressive is Le Manteau Chinois, below, a portrait of his then partner, Anne Estelle Rice. This portrait in particular shows how he has loosened his style since arriving in Paris and really embraced colour throughout his pictures. A large full-size portrait, this is one of the highlights of the exhibition.

Le Manteau Chinois, 1909, JD Fergusson
Le Manteau Chinois, 1909, JD Fergusson

At around the same time, Fergusson started to paint a series of female nudes which show how he continued to absorb the influence of painters such as Cezanne, most obviously in his large work Les Eus which is shown at the top of this post. Two other paintings which also had a particular impact on me where Rhythm and At my Studio Window, painted in 1910 and 1911. These are among his most sensuous and overtly modern pre-war paintings.

At my Studio Window, 1910, JD Fergusson
At my Studio Window, 1910, JD Fergusson

During the First War, Fergusson returned to the UK but then went back to Paris in the 1920s. His work moved on and he experimented with a number of styles including vorticism before settling into a style which embraced Art Deco and which, in my view, is less interesting and compelling than his pre-war work. His portrait of Grace McColl, painted in 1930, is an example. It is a perfectly good picture but to my mind lacks the energy and vitality of his earlier work.

Grace McColl, 1930, JD Fergusson
Grace McColl, 1930, JD Fergusson

Fergusson returned finally to Scotland in 1939, settling with Margaret Morris in Glasgow. He continued to visit France regularly but focused more of his attention on his Scottishness and the development of a sense of Celtic Nationalism. He continued to paint and one of his last large scale works reflected his new interests. Danu, Mother of the Gods sets a female figure against a stylised background of the Scottish Highlands which he started to explore and paint regularly during this period.

Danu, Mother of the Gods, 1952, JD Fergusson
Danu, Mother of the Gods, 1952, JD Fergusson

Fergusson died in 1961, some fifty years after the other members of the Scottish Colourists. His partner, Marget Morris survived him by some years and dedicated herself to managing his reputation and ensuring that hos work was properly represented in public institutions across Scotland. For example, she arranged for 14 significant works to the be given to the newly-opened University of Stirling in 1968.

All in all, this is an excellent exhibition of an artist who was much more significant in the history of Scottish painting than I had previously realised. It is well worth a trip to Edinburgh to see this before it closes on 15 June 2014.

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