Today I celebrate the bicentenary of an artist who remains almost completely unknown, but is now thought to have played a major role in the development of both Impressionism and Neo-Impressionism. He’s also, as far as I know, the only Welsh painter who almost achieved international recognition during the nineteenth century: Rhys Terfel Talog. It’s only following recent research on his few surviving paintings, and his papers in the Mouton-Rothschild Collection, that I can celebrate his birthday, today, the first of April.
Rhys Terfel Talog (1821-1888) was born in the Welsh fishing village of Llareggub, on the west coast of Wales, over a century before it was made famous in Dylan Thomas’s play Under Milk Wood. He studied painting first at the Swansea Art School, where he learned to paint in watercolours and oils, but in the Spring of 1839 left prematurely and made his way to Paris. Failing to gain entry to the Académie des Beaux-Arts there, he worked in Delacroix’s studio, developing his technique and skills.
His early paintings, at least those that have survived, were strictly realist and in Salon style. However his motifs were unusual, and he quickly showed a preference for painting sheep in pastoral settings. From about 1850 he often travelled to paint in Normandy, and later in Brittany too, where he met the young Eugène Boudin.
Talog soon discovered a practical problem with painting sheep: it isn’t wise to bring them into the studio, where they wreak havoc. He was therefore driven to paint almost entirely en plein air, and it was he who inspired Boudin to do the same.
Early works such as A Sheep Market in Normandy (1850) show clear influence of the Barbizon School, although he doesn’t appear to have frequented sites around Fontainebleau where others tended to gather and paint.
During the 1850s these paintings started to explore the effects of light more, and their facture became steadily rougher, anticipating the changes which were to be seen in Monet and Renoir a decade later. It was Talog who first introduced Monet to Boudin in 1857, and helped convince the young Monet to paint landscapes.
Talog was bitterly disappointed when his exceptional On the Way to Market (1859) was refused by the Salon jury that year, and Boudin’s entry was accepted, but Boudin and Monet were able to rebuild his confidence so that he could resume painting the following year.
Sadly few of his works from the 1860s seem to have survived, as he had to abandon them in France when the Franco-Prussian War broke out in 1870. He returned to his family in Wales, where he concentrated on studies in which he tried to capture the optical properties of the fleece of the local Cardiganshire sheep, whose wool is so distinctive as to have been the origin of the name of the knitted ‘cardigan’ jacket.
Working initially in watercolour, he made little headway. When he changed to oils, though, he discovered the solution was to break his brushstrokes up into ever finer marks.
His first finished painting using this technique, which he termed pointillage, was The Shepherdess Bringing in Sheep (1872). Still smarting from his previous experience with the Salon jury, he submitted this to the Royal Academy in London, who rejected it.
This time Talog didn’t stop painting, but pressed on, convinced of eventual success. His Flock of Sheep was sent to the Royal Academy the following year, and was also rejected.
Talog’s last surviving painting is his Landscape with a Flock of Sheep (1875), completed too late for the First Impressionist Exhibition of 1874, and once again rejected by the Royal Academy. However by this time he was living on the Boulevard de Magenta, had met the Seurat family, and befriended their son Georges, who was just starting his training at the local École Municipale de Sculpture et Dessin. Re-examination of Seurat’s papers has confirmed that it was Talog who was actually the father of Neo-Impressionism.
When Seurat started to develop Neo-Impressionism in the early 1880s, it was too late for Talog. He returned to the village of his birth in 1877, and made a comfortable living painting local views in watercolours for the gentry and first waves of tourists. He returned to Paris in the Spring of 1886 to see Seurat’s A Sunday Afternoon on the Island of La Grande Jatte (1884-6) on display, and two years later died in a freak farming accident, when a flock of sheep ran out of control during a storm.
What day could be more appropriate to celebrate the recently discovered influence of Rhys Terfel Talog?