In the late 1870s a group of young artists gained recognition by challenging the classical and allegorical subject matter of the art establishment in Scotland, chiefly represented by the Royal Scottish Academy in Edinburgh. Principal members of this largely amorphous group included Joseph Crawhill, James Guthrie, George Henry and E. A. Hornel. Influenced by the social realism of the Barbizon School of French painters, the Boys exhibited in London and Europe throughout the 1880s and 1890s to great critical acclaim. As well as painting in Glasgow and its environs, they sought scenes of rural life and character in Kirkcudbright, Cockburnspath and other parts of Scotland. Their works can be seen in various Scottish collections, notably the Glasgow Art Gallery and Museum, the Burrell Collection and Broughton House, Kirkcudbright.

Ironically, the social realism pioneered by the Boys came to represent the mainstream of Scottish art and the rebels of the late 19th century themselves became the establishment figures of the early 20th.

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