George Clausen was one of the ‘rural naturalists’, a young generation of mainly French-trained artists who painted realistic scenes of everyday country life in a semi-Impressionist style. He was not a realist in the sense of having an ideological commitment to peasant themes, but was rather concerned with technique, particularly effects of light, and his works often feature figures silhouetted against the sun.
The Farmer’s Boy shows a young man holding a winnowing fan, standing near the door of a barn to allow the draft to separate the chaff from the grain. The painting was exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1895, the year the artist was elected a member of the institution. The model for the figure was possibly the same boy who appears in the artist’s Bird Scaring: March, exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1896 and subsequently purchased by the Harris Museum and Art Gallery, Preston.
Like others in the ‘ruralist’ group Clausen was strongly influenced by the work of the French painters J.-F. Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage. The Farmer’s Boy is particularly indebted to Millet and has a striking resemblance to the artist’s The Winnower of 1848 (National Gallery, London), in setting a dynamically posed figure with a winnowing fan in the interior of a barn. Clausen was on close terms with the writer D.C. Thompson who published a feature on Millet in the Magazine of Art (1889, pp.375–384), in which he makes reference to The Winnower and it is possible that the painting developed from discussions with Thompson about the work. In describing the painting when it was first exhibited Marion Spielmann noted: ‘It may be objected that it is a vivid reminiscence of Millet; certain it is that no other Englishman could come so near to that master, nor make subject and method so successfully his own.’ (Magazine of Art, 1895, p.284.) However, whereas Millet’s painting carried overt political connotations in 1848, by 1895 Clausen’s figure would have appeared more nostalgic for a passing way of life. It was maybe to exonerate himself from accusations of parody that Clausen worked up the idea into a more elaborate composition in which the boy is placed in context of the surrounding barn. This painting, The Golden Barn of 1901 exists in two versions, one in the Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, the other in Rochdale Art Gallery.
Sir George Clausen, RA: 1852–1944, exhibition catalogue, Cartwright Hall, Bradford 1980.