“Accidents are the makings of a picture”
For the nineteenth century painter Arthur Melville the courting of danger was a sought after ingredient in both his work and his life.
About whom Britain’s Art Fund has said “Arthur Melville's fascination with brilliant light and bold compositions made him one of the most radical and innovative Scottish artists of the 19th-century.”
An opinion underscored by Tate Britain who has said “Melville evolved a new watercolor method. He saturated the paper with Chinese white paint and used sponges to create a velvet-like texture. Before applying the paint, he tried out ideas on pieces of glass held over the painting. Color, such as the blue used here, (see below) drew attention not just to the subject of the work, but to the medium itself.”
Born in 1855 and whilst a grocers apprentice in his late teens Melville attended evening classes at the Royal Scottish Academy and after having one of his pictures exhibited at London’s Royal Academy when he was 23 Melville decamped to France. During his two years there he first painted in Paris and later at an artist’s colony in Grez-sur-Loing.
After France Melville traveled to the Middle East. First to Egypt then later to Bagdad and then overland through Syria and Turkey to Europe and England. During this journey Melville was attacked by robbers and left for dead, detained by the Turks as a suspected spy and completed some 60 watercolor sketches in a style that was destined to become the dominant influence for the rest of his life.
As the Independent Newspaper’s Iain Gale wrote about a 2011 Edinburgh exhibition of Melville’s work “At first sight it is easy to mistake Melville's loose style for a derivative of Impressionism - he is often dubbed a "Scottish impressionist". In truth, although his inspiration was in part French, it was drawn not from Monet, Sisley and their fellow rebels but from rather more prosaic French and Dutch Realist painters, such as Bastien-Lepage, Mauve, Israels and other Hague artists… In the latter work Melville shows himself a paragon of artistic brevity. In his finest watercolors he is able to convey the mood of an Eastern street market, a Highland autumn or a Spanish bull-ring with no more than a few strokes of subtle tonal wash. With Melville, less is definitely more… Melville was a man ahead of his time - an unsuspected precursor of modernism, anticipating the achievement of Kandinsky and the German Expressionists.
Although he never returned to the Middle East, Melville found a substitute in Spain which visited regularly. And it was his last visit there at the age of 49 that saw him catch Typhoid fever that was to bring his life to its close.
The Exhibition Arthur Melville: Adventures in Color is currently on show at the Scottish National Gallery until the 17th of January 2016.