Gillies’ early training in Paris is well-documented; less well-known is his 1938 sojourn in the French fishing port of St Valery-en-Caux, Normandy, in the company of the artist Johnnie Maxwell. This evocative watercolour is a rare souvenir from this trip. Made spontaneously and without preparatory drawing, colour has been applied in urgent, bold strokes evoking an atmospheric windy day in the French coastal town. The luscious, expressive mark-making demonstrate Gillies’ admiration for the French masters of interior painting such as Vuillard and Bonnard, yet for Gillies it was in his landscapes painted en plein air that he felt he could best capture a sense of vibrancy and immediacy. This watercolour typifies the artist’s ability not only to record his surroundings, but to also lay down an unmediated emotional response to the world around him.
The emotional intensity of Gillies’ painting from around this period is perhaps best explained by the sense of tragedy that defined his life in the latter half of the 1930s: as tensions mounted in the build-up to the Second World War, Gillies also suffered a bitter personal loss through the death of his younger sister Emma, who succumbed to ill health in 1935. Herself a talented ceramicist, Gillies had painted Emma a number of times, and the siblings shared a close and affectionate relationship. In the wake of this loss, Gillies threw himself into his craft with renewed devotion, with the resulting work demonstrating an exploration of the boundaries between intimacy and intensity. Gillies’ influence on Scottish landscape painting has been profound, and this vivid watercolour is a rare instance of the artist applying his distinctive vision to a subject-matter further afield.
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