The 1930s were years of outstanding quality in Matthew Smith's painting, and were a very productive period even by his own prolific standards; the decade gradually saw Smith turn his focus away from landscape to concentrate increasingly upon still life. In the early years of the decade, travel was a wearying but essential part of Smith's painting, as it was for much of his working life, and the present work was produced in Southern France during a long period of experiment there.
Travelling first to Arles and then to Cezanne's Aix-en-Provence (where in 1932 Smith painted his own views of Mont Sant-Victoire), by 1933 he had discovered Cagnes-sur-Mer, situated between Nice and Cannes and once home to Renoir. During his stay here he painted a successful series of studies of his landlady's daughter, Christiane de Mauberge. One of these, Lady with a Rose, 1934/5, was a favourite of his and stayed with him until he died. It was in the same year, alongside such paintings, that he produced the present work.
Featuring peonies - a favourite flower among those that Smith liked to paint, and available just between May and June - the privacy and control of the studio interior allowed for an expressive freedom in his alla prima technique, one which had been restricted by the fugitive challenges of landscape and light in his plein-air painting but which grew bolder as his mature style developed. Here, peonies and pears dance an arabesque across the canvas, humble objects described with an expressive, exuberant abandon, but also with a remarkable grasp of form. As Patrick Heron, regarding Smith's bold brushwork, would later remark, "there is no painting here which is not drawing" 1. Smith's eye apprehends the motif as a whole, lending the subject matter a simple, monumental quality. Augustus John, a lifelong friend, described such painting as " ...a pageant of grandiose and voluptuous form and sumptuous colour ..."2, but for all his painterly flamboyance, Smith's use of ordinary objects - broken or chipped jugs and vases, old Staffordshire figures - roots his still lifes to the modestly everyday.
1 Matthew Smith, Barbican Art Gallery exh. catalogue, 1983, p46 2 Ibid, Sir John Rothenstein quoting Augustus John, p39
Arthur Tooth & Sons
Mr D. A. West, acquired 4 November 1936
Private Collection, UK, until 1982
Browse & Darby, London, 1983
Venice Biennale,1938, British Pavillion, cat no.45
London, Arthur Tooth & Sons, Recent
Paintings by Matthew Smith, 5-28 November 1936, cat no.30
Gallery, London, 1976-82, on loan
London, Browse & Darby, Sir Matthew Smith C.B.E. 1879-1959, 15
September – 30 October 1983, cat no.22, illus
John Gledhill, Matthew
Smith Catalogue Raisonné of the Oil Paintings, Lund Humphries, Farnham,
2009, cat no.490, p194
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