Art review: Pioneering Painters: The Glasgow Boys 1880-1900

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• To Pastures New by James Guthrie. Picture: Complimentary

JAMES GUTHRIE'S first major picture was A Highland Funeral. Exhibited in 1882 at the Royal Academy in London, it is big, dark and sombre. There is snow on the ground and the dominant colour, a wintry grey is unrelieved by any warmth. It is a child's funeral; a small coffin, draped in black, is laid across two kitchen chairs outside a cottage. A minister raises his hand in benediction on the left. To the right stand a dozen men, a boy and a dog. The men are bareheaded and dressed in black. Like a pibroch in paint, the line of their heads makes a set of close variations on the horizon marked by a distant streak of light in the gloomy sky.

The picture is one of the stars in the Glasgow Boys exhibition at Kelvingrove. Guthrie was a leader of the group. His To Pastures New is the signature painting that greets you as you enter. Painted the following year, it is dramatically different, both in style and in mood. Instead of cold greys, it is all sunny blue and white and pink. A little girl is driving a gaggle of geese across the composition – and indeed out of it, as the geese disappear to the left.

There are other notable pictures here. WY Macgregor's Vegetable Stall, for instance, a richly coloured stack of vegetables, or John Lavery's The Tennis Party, a study of dappled shadows on a summer's afternoon and a languorous, pat-the-ball tennis match. James Paterson's Moniaive is a beautiful study in wintry silver-grey and ochre.

Some of the other pictures are less familiar. Many are of rural workers, usually women, in the fields, like Alexander Mann's Hop-pickers Returning, or EA Walton's Berwickshire Field Workers. The latter, which is dominated by the single figure of a woman with a sickle and wearing the strange, basket headgear that women wore in the fields on the east coast, is one of the most unusual, while George Henry's Noon, a girl enjoying the shade of a tree as she watches her cows, is one of the most beautiful. Guthrie's Schoolmates, shows three children on their way to school dressed in heavy boots and rustic clothes and shifts attention from the labourers to their children, as does James Paterson's The Old Apple Tree, a reflective picture of a girl daydreaming in a tree.

The Glasgow Boys identified themselves as young artists by claiming noisily to be anti-establishment and to reject the older generation whom they called "Glue-Pots". A lot of people have taken them at their own valuation, but that requires a pretty elastic view of history. The older generation in Scotland included such artists as William McTaggart and GP Chalmers, or indeed Arthur Melville, though he was closer in age. Very far from Glue-Pots, these were outstanding artists in European terms. As for the claim to be anti-establishment, not only did Guthrie exhibit his first major picture at the RA in London, but within 20 years of painting it he was president of the Royal Scottish Academy, a meteoric rise to the pinnacle of the Establishment. As many of the Boys did, he then settled down in Edinburgh and grew rich painting fat gentlemen in civic robes.

Nevertheless, the subtitle of this exhibition is Pioneering Painters. Guthrie's A Highland Funeral is a great painting, but is it really pioneering? By 1882, Monet was 20 years into Impressionism. Manet's career was already over and Czanne was painting pictures that would change the face of art. In fact, Guthrie's composition matches very closely Courbet's great Burial at Ornans. Painted almost 40 years before, Courbet's picture had just re-emerged to be bought by the Louvre and so was in the news. The other clear influence is contemporary Hague School painting, especially Josef Israels, made fashionable in Scotland by the Aberdeen collector, John Forbes White.

The universal model for the Glasgow Boys, however, as it was for artists in England, Russia, Belgium and Denmark and most other northern European schools, was French painting – not Impressionism, but a more conservative painting taught in the Paris studios. It was tonal – that is, structured round light and shade – and with a colour key of silvery greens and greys, rather than the pure colour of Impressionism. Its preferred subject matter was rural life and its heroes were artists like Jules Breton and Jules Bastien-Lepage. In acknowledgment of this link, the exhibition includes a painting by the latter and also one by an English follower, William Stott of Oldham, but there is more to the story than that.

The two dominant painters here are James Guthrie and Arthur Melville; together their works make up more than a quarter of the show. Melville was simply the most original British artist of the late 19th century. He was the first British painter to understand the Impressionist use of colour and his luminous watercolours are unlike anything else of their time – but he was not a Glasgow painter at all. He came from East Linton and worked in Edinburgh. The Glasgow Boys were greatly influenced by him and when they do break with the universal tonal model to turn to painting in colour, Melville is the key. The difference between Guthrie's To Pastures New and his A Highland Funeral is explained by the return of Melville to Scotland from the Middle East in 1883.

Indeed, Guthrie and several of the Glasgow painters admired Melville so much that they moved to Cockburnspath on the East Coast to be near him. Guthrie's masterpiece, The Hind's Daughter, was painted there. Compare it to a purely tonal work such as Bastien-Lepage's Le Mendiant, Lavery's Under the Cherry Tree, or even Guthrie's own Schoolmates, and you see how The Hind's Daughter is composed, not of carefully modulated shades of grey, but with a screen of flat marks of rich colour. What is more, the little girl in the picture implicitly threatens the artist with her gleaming knife; the workers fight back; she won't be patronised. Guthrie has picked up from Melville a more sceptical attitude to his subject than the patronising pictures of "honest toil" painted by Bastien-Lepage's admirers.

At the end of the decade, Henry's Galloway Landscape and the picture he painted jointly with Hornel, Druids Bringing Home the Mistletoe, represent a complete break with academic convention. Flat and richly coloured, they reflect the move towards Symbolism under Gauguin's leadership in Brittany, but Melville's influence is still part of the story. This was a last flourish however. Very few of the Boys sustained their creativity to the end of the century, though one notable exception is a group of beautiful pastels by Guthrie inspired by Degas.

Glasgow is part of Scotland and Scotland is part of Europe. Forget that simple geography and your amnesia might be mistaken for provincialism. This is the first exhibition devoted to the Glasgow Boys for more than 40 years. We know much more about Scottish art now than we did then, but there is not much sign of that here. Instead of press-ganging Melville to support Glasgow's exceptionalism at the expense of historical fact, it would have been much more interesting to see Glasgow as part of, not apart from, the wider Scottish story. Then we might have learnt something new. Instead we are still presented with these artists at their own estimation, as though they were somehow unique and exclusive.

Scottish art in the late 19th century was brilliant. The Glasgow Boys were an integral part of it and there is much by them that is brilliant here, but their story is not well told. Nor does the gloomy subterranean exhibition space at Kelvingrove do justice to all these lovely paintings of the open air.

&#149 Until 27 September