William Dyce (Scottish painter) 1806 - 1864The Highland Ferryman, 1857oil on canvas51.1 x 61.1 cm.Aberdeen Art Gallery & Museums, Aberdeen, United Kingdom
This painting, which was exhibited at the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh in 1858 and at the Royal Academy in London with the title 'Contentment' one year later, is the first example of a new interest by the artist in genre subjects.
The rural character depicted, unlike most Dyce's previous subjects, is not contemporary, historical or religious, but a timeless figure who stands apart from the modern world.
Careful attention has been paid to the details of physiognomy and clothes: the knotted handkerchief around the neck, the patches at the elbow and knee and the grizzled whiskers. Dyce's vision lacks any social comment (unlike many Pre-Raphaelite works); he shows the poverty but also the Ferryman's way of life as peaceful, untroubled and in close communion with nature. The tonalities of the painting, in tune with the subject, are very restrained and subdued: mainly blues, greys and an almost colourless sky. Only the Ferryman's clothes are stronger in colour in order to focus the attention on the figure.
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William Dyce was a distinguished Scottish artist, who played a significant part in the formation of public art education in the United Kingdom, as perhaps the true parent of the South Kensington Schools system.
Dyce began his career at the Royal Academy schools, and then traveled to Rome for the first time in 1825. While he was there, he studied the works of Titian and Poussin. He returned to Rome in 1827, this time staying for a year and a half, and during this period he appears to have made the acquaintance of the German Nazarene painter Friedrich Overbeck. After these travels, he settled for several years in Edinburgh. He supported himself by painting portraits at first, but soon took to other subjects of art, especially the religious subjects he preferred.
He was given charge of the School of Design in Edinburgh, and was then invited to London, where he was based thereafter, to head the newly established Government School of Design, later to become the Royal College of Art. Before taking up this post in 1838 he and a colleague were sent to visit France and Germany to enquire into design education there and prepare a report. He left the school in 1843, to be able to paint more, but remained a member of the Council of the school. The ideas that were turned in the following decade into the "South Kensington system" that dominated English art education for the rest of the century really have their origin in Dyce's work.
His most highly thought of painting today is his exceptionally detailed seaside landscape of Pegwell Bay in Kent, now in the Tate Gallery. A rather atypical work, it is fully titled Pegwell Bay, Kent – a Recollection of October 5th 1858.
He was also interested in music, especially church music, playing the organ and composing works that outlasted him.
The largest collection of William Dyce's work is displayed at Aberdeen Art Gallery, Scotland.
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