Forbes, one of the most important artists of British impressionism, is generally regarded as the father of the Newlyn School of painters. In 1884, he and a group of artist friends based themselves in Newlyn, a small fishing village in the Cornwall area, where, in 1899, Forbes founded the Newlyn Art School with his wife, Canadian-born Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes.
Born in Dublin in in 1857, Forbes studied in London at Dulwich College, the Lambeth School of Art (1874-6), and the Royal Academy Schools (1876-8). During a two-year stay in Paris, Forbes studied under Leon Bonnat and was influenced by the Realism of Jean-Francois Millet and Jules Bastien-Lepage.
After training in the cities, many artists like Forbes turned their backs on the rapidly changing urban scene, seeking refuge instead in the countryside. Here they believed, life was elemental and unchanging, governed by the fixed cycle of the seasons. The Newlyn group, including artists such as Bramley, Gotch and Langly, began arousing critical interest after Forbes first exhibited at the Royal Academy in 1878. The Newlyn community had grown, and the locals were increasingly amused with the artists’ insistence on illustrating every aspect of their daily lives, however mundane. The artistic attraction to the Newlyn area was due, in part, to the freshness of light, a quality that can be observed in Forbes’s work, particularly in his interiors. His depiction of light and gray tones, combined with square brushwork, became more vigorous, strongly coloured and naturalistic over time. Forbes’s greatest works continued to depict village life in Newlyn, with his style reflecting both his French and English roots.
Forbes remained closely tied to the Royal Academy, becoming an ARA in 1892 and an RA in 1910. He was also one of the founding members of the New English Art Club (1886).