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Nathaniel Hill 1861 - 1934

Photograph of a Breton painting by the Irish artist, Nathaniel Hill.

Sunshine, Brittany
Oil on canvas 18 x 12 inches. Signed by the artist dated 1884
Title inscribed by the artist on label verso
Provenance: Mrs. Place;
by descent to her daughter:
dispersal sale, 16 Alma Road, Monkstown, Co. Dublin, Hamilton & Hamilton, 1st May, 1986, lot no 248;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art;
Private collection, Dublin
Exhibited: Royal Hibernian Academy, 1885, number 257;
‘Onlookers In France’, Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork, 1993;
‘Peintres Irlandais en Bretagne’ Musée de Pont-Aven, France, 1999;
Irish Artists in Brittany, Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork 200;
'Nathaniel Hill and the Bretons', Milmo-Penny Fine Art, December 2007
Literature: Dublin University Review, Illustrated Art Supplement, Dublin, London, 1885, p.14;
Campbell, ‘The Irish Impressionists’, National Gallery of Ireland, 1984, pp. 131, 132

Throughout the ages, the artist has regarded the capture of light as the ultimate challenge. ‘To Paint the Light’ became the battle cry of many great artists of the late 19th century. It became central to their existence, so much so that artists such a Frank O’Meara would paint only on a sufficiently grey day. Others such as Walter Osborne and Nathaniel Hill preferred the stark contrast of bright sunshine and dark shadow, which is the theme of the current painting. The foreboding darkness of the interior, viewed through the open doors and windows, are thrown into dramatic relief by the bleached white collars of the traditional costume worn by the women. The sun-drenched stonework is complimented by the subtle shadows thrown by the figures and the nooks and crannies of the buildings. However, it is perhaps the narrative of this painting, which makes it so appealing. Sitting in the sunshine, an elderly woman breaks from her knitting to greet a visitor, perhaps her daughter or a neighbour who carries a large earthenware jar and may be on her way to the well to draw water for the midday meal. The everyday simplicity of the encounter holds our interest.

Hill stages the central figure in front of the dark interior to highlight the gleaming white of her costume. His attention to detail is displayed by the birdcage, which is suspended in the sunlight below an overhanging branch. Two small pots of geraniums sit on the window sill of an upper room. A white cloth, perhaps from the kitchen, hangs over a rail to dry in the sun. The cold tones of the blue slate roof and the red ochre of the moss are set off by the brilliance of the white woodwork. Almost hidden in the shadow, a group of chickens peck around the base of the timbers, which lean against the wall.

Photograph of an engraving by Mortimer Menpes.

Mortimer Menpes: La boutique du sabotier, Pont-Aven
Engraving, 1881, 25 x 17cm., mirror image: courtesy of Musée de Pont-Aven

The setting is a house situated just behind the main square in Pont-Aven. The stacked timbers may be the raw material for the sabot carving, which is the subject of an 1881 engraving, La boutique du sabotier, by Mortimer Menpes in the Musée de Pont-Aven. In the engraving, a number of figures, perhaps a family group, have gathered in the courtyard. They are attended by the sabotier as he emerges from the doorway with a newly carved pair of shoes. One of the visitors inspects them as her companion searches through a pile of shoes stacked against the workshop wall. In the background, a man sits patiently on the steps as a small boy looks on.

It is interesting to compare the detail in both works. The engraving is taken from a slightly different angle and shows a small triangle of sky with a glimpse of the gable wall to the left. It excludes the small window to the right and the angle of the workshop is slightly different. The birdcage is not included and the branches over the doorway are more extensive.

Photograph of a Breton painting by the Irish artist, Nathaniel Hill.

Goose Girl in a Breton Farmyard
Oil on canvas 18 x 14 3/4 inches. Signed by the artist dated 1884
Provenance: James Adam, Dublin;
Milmo-Penny Fine Art;
Collection of Allied Irish Banks plc, Dublin
Milmo-Penny Fine Art, June 1991;
‘Peintres Irlandais en Bretagne’ Musée de Pont-Aven, France, 1999;
Irish Artists in Brittany, Crawford Municipal Art Gallery, Cork 2001;
Municipal Gallery, Drogheda, current loan.

The scene depicted above has been identified as the Keramperchec farmyard at Pont-Aven. Hill painted another version of this scene, which he worked from the same drawing. The second version, A Corner in a Breton Farmyard, exhibited at the RHA in 1884, shows a farmer feeding two calves from the stone trough in front of the well. The farmyard was popular with visiting artists, the obvious attraction being the picturesque well set in front of the thatched house. Hill also painted a related scene with a similar ruined well in another Breton farmyard. These paintings are good examples of Hill's preoccupation with architectural detail and surface texture, which he handled with great skill. They also demonstrate his ability to plan a good composition. The American artist, Julian Alden Weir, produced similar work at the same locations during his short stay at Pont-Aven in 1874.

Photograph of a painting by the Irish artist, Nathaniel Hill.

Brady's Farm
Oil on panel 11 x 15 inches
Inscribed verso: Nathaniel Hill; Queensborough; Drogheda, Co. Louth;
Brady's Farm, Spring, 1897
Provenance: McHugh Bond collection, The Argory, Moy, Co. Tyrone;
The Argory contents, Temple Auctions, Lisburn, 12th November, 1988, lot 427,
purchased by J. Mullin, Glengormley, Co. Antrim;
de Veres, Dublin, 13 December, 1988, lot 35;
Exhibited: Milmo-Penny Fine Art, May 1992

This is an extremely rare example of Hill’s work from his post Breton years. Although the style appears much more modern, isolated detail shows a remarkable degree of similarity to his earlier work. The palette is also similar to that used in Brittany, particularly the blue-greys of the roof and distant hillside. His treatment of the foliage around the cottages is also familiar, especially in the overhanging branches in the foreground. The stone steps leading to the loft must have reminded him of his journeys through the French countryside. The location has not been identified, but the buildings and landscape are typical of the countryside surrounding Drogheda. The painting was attributed by Temple Auctions to Tom Bond Walker on stylistic grounds. After the auction, a backing board was removed and the inscription identifying the painting as a Nathaniel Hill was revealed.

Hill shared lodgings with Roderic O'Conor at Pembroke Road in Dublin, where  they both attended the Metropolitan School of Art. Considering this, it is extraordinary how their styles diverged within a few years. He also studied with Walter Osborne and Joseph Malachy Kavanagh at the Royal Hibernian Academy and also at the Antwerp Academy. During the mid 1880s, the three young artists painted together in Brittany and at various locations in England.

Jules Bastien-Lepage was in Brittany at the same time and it appears that his work influenced the Irish contingent. Lepage had the benefit of a first class training under Cabanel. His subject matter was influenced by Millet and others of the Barbizon school. However, his palette and tonal range was very much in the manner of the Impressionists. This was an interesting and successful mix, especially when applied to the plein air subject matter, which had been made popular by the painters in the forests around Barbizon earlier in the century. Zola describes it as, "Impressionism corrected, sweetened and adapted to the taste of the common crowd". While a note of sarcasm may be detected here, it is close enough to the truth. Forbes, O'Kelly, Garstin and Burke were also influenced by Lepage but it is debateable whether or not Zola's description applies across the board.

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