Artwork in Focus - The Druids
Artwork: The Druids Bringing in the Mistletoe
Artist: George Henry & Edward Atkinson Hornel
Medium: Oil on Canvas
Dimensions: H 152.4 x W 152.4 cm
Cards on the table –this is one of my all-time favourite works of art; not only from the extraordinary group of artists known collectively as The Glasgow Boys’ but from within the canon of art history in its entirety.
I came across this painting, rather by chance, at a talk about Celtic inspired art and to my delight, learned it was on permanent display at The Kelvingrove Art Gallery in Glasgow when I was a student studying Art History at Glasgow University. I cannot express how fabulous the colours in this work are in real life and should you ever find yourself in Glasgow with time to spare, I would highly recommend that you make a trip to the Kelvingrove to see it for yourself – it it one of a number of other remarkable works which the gallery houses in its collection by The Glasgow Boys.
The Glasgow Boys were a revolutionary collective of 20 artists who came together in the 1880s as a rebellion against the more traditional and conservative art scene of Britain at the time. More importantly, it was an active rejection of the values held within the cities rival Edinburgh art scene, which favoured classical landscapes and portraiture and a city to which was always pitted against Glasgow, as the place which houses the greater artistic scene in Scotland.
Why the Glasgow Boys are so important within the History of Scottish Art is they actively broke free from the confides of the respected Victorian Art scene and preferred a looser brush technique, bold application of colour and enjoyed working out in the natural world.
The first unusual aspect of this work is that despite it being painted by two artists, it is rather impossible to tell which part of the canvas was painted by who. This was not a customary practise of the time, although Henry & Hornel did collaborate on other paintings throughout their careers. For this painting, Henry & Hornel are said to have worked side by side to achieve ultimate harmony within the work.
The painting depicts a Druid procession after taking part in the holy ceremony of cutting down Mistletoe from the sacred Oak tree. Mistletoe was a divine plant to the Druids for its healing and fertility properties, which were particularly effective under the Summer’s waxing moon, seen in full to the right of the painting. The moon’s sphere is echoed in the curvature of the hills which the Druids descend.
Colour application is bold and free throughout the work which emphasises the magnificence of the of the Druid’s apparel and stance as they proceed down the hillside. Movement is further emphasised by the positioning of the figures as they almost feel as though they are marching out of the frame to continue their ceremony.
The gallant use of colours, shapes and decorative patterns of the robes are a key factor to the work’s appeal. From the vibrant reds of the Druid’s cloaks, to the gold detailing of the sacred ceremonial items, all work collectively in drawing viewers deeper into the work and allowing the composition to come together beautifully.
What these details masks however is the true, darker reality of the scene - the ceremony depicted is sacrificial.
The head Druid holding the gold sickle, which has been used to cut down the Mistletoe, is leading the procession to their place of worship to offer the two white bulls to the left foreground of the painting as sacred sacrifices. The white bull’s horns have been bedecked with the sacred plant as preparation for the ceremony.
When the work was first displayed at the Grosvenor Art Gallery in London in 1890 it caused such a surge in interest and discussion that the organiser of the Munich Art Exhibitions, Gustav Paulo, asked for this work and others by the Glasgow Boys which were on display to be sent to Munich to be shown. When the works were exhibited in Munich, this painting in particular took Europe by storm as others had not seen such a radical painting style as well as the use of gold within the work.
Moreover, the showing of this work and several others by the group put Glasgow’s name on the map as a place of artistic interest and curiosity within Europe.
This recognition and acceptance of style set the trail blazing for other Scottish artists such as The Scottish Colourists and Charles Rennie Mackintosh who found it much easier to find acceptance abroad with their own developments in art.
This work is on permanent display at the Kelvingrove Art Gallery and Museum, Glasgow, Scotland.
FUN FACT: The art historical term for painting outside, something which the Glasgow Boys preferred to do, is ‘En plein air’ and is something largely associated with the Impressionist painters. This was largely due to advancements in painting supplies which saw the introduction of light-weight, foldable easel as well all the development of small, portable paint tubes.