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Art in Scotland
George Paul Chalmers

Born, 1836; died, February 1878.

This gifted artist, who died at the early age of forty-two, after having given evidence of the possession of such genius as would, had he been longer spared, have placed him in the very first rank among the artists of Britain, was a native of Montrose, and educated at the burgh school there. He was apprenticed at an early age to a ship-chandler in his native town, but soon found the work so intolerable that he went to Edinburgh, and managed to obtain admission to the Trustees' Academy, then under the direction of Robert Scott Lauder. He led a simple life, absorbed in the love of his art, and early gave evidence of his future power in colour and poetic feeling. He was seldom or never satisfied with his own work. He experimented on himself, not through want of decision or in imitation of others, but with a desire to find out new forms of expression in art. His earlier efforts were loose in style, but he gradually wrought himself into a careful and highly finished manner, by which he gained in knowledge, and which in time gave way to great breadth, retaining, however, all the beauty and quality of true artistic finish, without the painful feeling induced by elaborated minuteness, so characteristic of the greatest art. Of the care and time, as well as the thought, bestowed upon his work, no better example could be wished for than the unfinished Legend in the Scottish National Gallery, in which a most admirably painted figure of an old woman is represented in the act of relating some weird story of bygone days to a group of listening children. This picture, which even in its present state is perhaps his greatest, had been kept beside him for very many years, and was purchased after his death by the Association for the Promotion of the Fine Arts in Scotland for 500 guineas, who issued a good etching of the picture to the subscribers. One thousand guineas had been offered for it when it was on view with his other works at the sale after his death, but his friends refused this offer in order that it might be added permanently to the National Gallery. His admirably painted head of the late Mr John M'Gavin, of Glasgow, is an excellent example of his style in portraiture. So much care did he bestow upon this work that Mr M'Gavin gave him from forty to fifty sittings, being a great friend of the artist and much interested in art. Among his other fine heads may be mentioned those of Mr J. C. Bell, and Dr Tuke of Edinburgh, both containing the highest qualities of Rembrandt's art in their fine feeling for light and shade, beautiful colour, and admirable lechnique. Another very excellent specimen of his art, and one which it would be difficult to surpass, is his Miserere Mei, belonging to Dr A. 13. Spence, of Dundee. This represents a middle- aged but prematurely old monk, in grey frock and hood, with eyes hollowed by long vigils, short black lank hair, and upturned face, clasping in his nervous hands a string of beads with pendant crucifix, to which is attached a miniature skull. The figure is half-length, and the time and care which the artist seems to have bestowed on it have resulted in a work which is in all respects worthy of the very highest praise.

To his great gift of colour he added the still rarer quality of subtlety of expression, and these he exercised upon whatever subject presented itself to his fancy, whether landscape, portrait, genre, or a simple interior void of figures. One of his most important landscapes is that entitled Running Water, in which the steady flow of a full stream is checked and broken by some boulders near its middle, against which the breaking and plunging of the brown water wrought into foam is painted with great skill. A belt of trees and partial glimpses of a grey sky fill up the background, allowing the eye to rest in quiet possession of the subject of the picture.

An enthusiast in art, and a great favourite with his numerous friends and admirers, his sudden and unexpected death, resulting from an accident on the evening of the opening dinner of the Academy's exhibition of 1878, was the cause of much sorrow. He was elected Associate of the Academy in 1867, and full Academician in 1871.

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