William Stott of Oldham

Le Passeur (The Ferryman)


William Stott of Oldham 1857–1900
Oil paint on canvas
Support: 1092 × 2153 mm
frame: 1327 × 2384 × 98 mm
Purchased with funds provided by the Heritage Lottery Fund, Art Fund (with a contribution from the Wolfson Foundation) and The Hintze Family Charitable Foundation 2017


Le Passeur (The Ferryman) 1881 is an oil painting on canvas by the British painter William Stott. The painting depicts a rural scene with two young female figures in the foreground in contemporary dress. The girls have their backs to the viewer and appear to look across an expanse of water that stretches across the middle section of the canvas. A cluster of buildings borders the water in the background and is reflected in it along with the dusky sky. The stretch of water that mirrors the sky appears to glow in contrast with the duller colours of the buildings and foliage, and the girls’ dresses in blue and white seem to borrow some of this radiant effect.

Le Passeur stands out as the most ambitious impressionist work of Stott’s career. It was painted at the international artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing in north-central France where, in the early 1880s, the artist established working relationships with artists from across Europe and America, including Frank O’Meara and Lowell Birge Harrison. Six-foot long, perhaps in emulation of John Constable’s six-foot landscape paintings, the picture is a delicate tonalist rendition of dusk on the river at Grez. It displays a rich mixture of influences and connections, from the rural naturalism of Jules Bastien Lepage to the simple geometry and enigmatic stillness of Edward Burne-Jones. There are japoniste touches in the way the reeds are painted contre jour, allowing them to appear silhouetted against the reflection of the setting sun on the water. The dusk lighting and contemplative figures also recall the work of Scandinavian artists such as Carl Larsson and Karl Nordström, who were well represented among the colony at Grez. Indeed Le Passeur also has symbolist undertones – the subject of the work could be seen as a reference to Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology who crosses the river Styx. However, in terms of naturalistic painting the picture represents one of the key moments in the breakthrough of naturalism in British art of the 1880s, away from a detailed rendition of form and narrative content. The juxtaposition of surface effect and perspectival depth, achieved through the combination of techniques used to represent the water and landscape, was to become highly influential and imitated by artists such as George Clausen, Henry La Thangue, John Lavery, James Guthrie and Stanhope Forbes.

Stott was a leading figure in the group of British artists who came under the influence of French naturalism in the closing decades of the nineteenth century. After studying at Manchester School of Art, he trained in Paris under Léon Bonnat and Jean-Léon Gérôme and went on to exhibit a number of paintings at the Paris Salon. The works he showed there were much admired by French critics. Le Passeur established the artist’s international reputation when it was exhibited, together with the artist’s The Bathing Place (La Baignade), in 1882. Stott was awarded a third class medal for the former by the Salon Jury and the critic Victor Champier reported that connoisseurs were ‘surprised, charmed and captivated’ by the ‘sharp truth, complete originality, and unusual elegance’ of the picture (L’Exposition des Beaux Arts (Salon 1882), p.222). However, the painting was to receive a much cooler reception in London when it was shown at the Fine Art Society later that year, the broad isolated brushwork representing a decisive departure from established methods of blending tone and colour in landscape painting.

Le Passeur was purchased from the Fine Art Society by the collector John Forbes White who hung it in the picture gallery at his house in Aberdeen. Shortly after, White commissioned Stott to paint a portrait of his daughter Alice. In more general terms Le Passeur came to exert a strong influence on artists associated with the Glasgow School. The first long critical evaluation of the artist’s work was published by the critic Alice Corkran in The Scottish Art Review in 1889. This stated: ‘The secret charm of the picture consists in its witching harmony and restfulness, unbroken by any intrusive emotion brought into it by the human world.’ (Corkran 1889, p.320.)

Further reading
Alice Corkran, ‘William Stott of Oldham’, Scottish Art Review, vol.1, April 1889, p.320.
Roger Brown, William Stott of Oldham, 1857–1900, ‘A Comet Rushing to the Sun’, exhibition catalogue, Oldham Art Gallery 2003, pp.20–2, 62–3, reproduced p.63.
Kenneth McConkey, William Stott of Oldham: Le Passeur, exhibition catalogue, Fine Art Society, London 2014.

Alison Smith
June 2015

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Display caption

Here, two girls are pictured waiting for a ferry-boat to cross a river at dusk. It has been suggested that the title could be a reference to Charon, the ferryman of Greek mythology. Charon crosses the river Styx, the border between Earth and the Underworld. The dimming light and the flowing water may represent different phases of life and the passage from life to death. Le Passeur was painted on the shore of the river Loing in north-central France. It was made while Stott was staying at the international artists’ colony of Grez-sur-Loing.

Gallery label, May 2021

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