Samuel John Peploe was the eldest of the group of four artists known as the Scottish colourists; the other members were John D Fergusson, George Leslie Hunter and Francis CB Cadell. They were primarily a group of friends who shared similar artistic aims rather than a movement unified by a manifesto. All were strongly influenced by contemporary French painting, and Peploe studied in Paris at L’Académie Julian and L’Académie Colarossi in 1894. His early still lifes show the influence of Manet, but he soon responded to the works of Cézanne and the post-impressionists. He returned to France regularly from 1900, absorbing the lessons of the revolution brought about by Matisse and the fauves, who used intense colour to create dramatic and expressive effects of space and light.
Still life was central to Peploe’s art, although he also painted figure subjects and landscapes; a notable example of the latter genre, Iona, 1920–33, is also in Te Papa’s collection. This Still life derives from a tradition of Western painting that emerged in seventeenth-century Holland and Spain. Peploe admired the Dutch masters, especially Frans Hals, whose bravura handling of paint finds an equivalent in the painterly quality of Peploe’s works. Like Manet, Peploe was also influenced by the Spanish painter Diego Velázquez, particularly the immediacy of his response to the world around him. Unlike seventeenth-century still-life paintings, which often carried hidden moral messages, Peploe’s still lifes were a celebration of pure painting, liberated from overt meaning or associations.
The artist took enormous care and time assembling the mundane objects that made up his compositions, but once this had been achieved to his satisfaction he would execute the painting in a single sitting. Such immediacy is clearly visible in Still life, as is Peploe’s modelling of forms through blocks of unmodulated colour. Viewed close up, the work seems to dissolve into a series of random dabs of colour. From a greater distance, the image comes into focus, allowing the viewer to become an active participant in the act of creation. As the eighteenthcentury critic Denis Diderot recognised when observing the works of Jean-Siméon Chardin, still lifes cause us to re-examine the experience of viewing paintings.
This essay originally appeared in Art at Te Papa (Te Papa Press, 2009).