William Blair Bruce, “Landscape with Poppies” (1887), oil on canvas, 27.3 × 33.8 cm (Art Gallery of Ontario. Purchased with assistance from Wintario, 1977, photo © Art Gallery of Ontario 77/42)

LAUSANNE, Switzerland — A windswept hillside seen on a sunny spring day, its bright red poppies rendered in sprightly strokes of paint, a mottled smudge of a haystack in the distance: It’s a classic French Impressionist scene. Or is it? The name William Blair Bruce (1859–1906) is sketched faintly in the bottom left corner. Bruce — who studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, spent time with Monet at Giverny, and spent most of his adult life in Europe — was born in Hamilton, Ontario, near Toronto, and is known as Canada’s first Impressionist. But that title should actually go to Frances Jones (1855–1944), a painter from Halifax who preceded Bruce in Paris by a few years, and was the first Impressionism-inflected Canadian to exhibit at the Salon de la Société des artistes français in 1883.

This tidbit about two unexpected Impressionists — a forgotten female artist, and a nearly forgotten male one — is among many discoveries in Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons at the Fondation de l’Hermitage. While Impressionism is often considered a quintessentially French, quintessentially male art movement, it was actually a worldwide phenomenon: artists of both sexes travelled from Turkey, Greece, and even Australia and Japan to experience the scene in Paris in the late 19th century. This exhibition closes an art historical gap on the Canadian artists who made this journey — most of whom are little known or studied — and explores what happened when they went back home. Curator Katerina Atanassova argues that these early Canadian Francophiles didn’t easily fit into molds, and were crucial in forging the path toward modern Canadian art in the 20th century.

Kathleen Moir Morris, after “Grand Mass,” Berthier-en-Haut (1927), oil on canvas, 61 × 71 cm, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. Purchase, gift of William J. Morrice (1927.479), © Estate of K. Moir Morris (photo by MMFA, Brian Merrett)

Canada in the late 1800s was what writer Adam Gopnik calls in his catalogue essay “a thinly urban place.” Officially a country only since 1867, its biggest cities, Montreal and Toronto, were dominated by conservative church values and anemic academic art. Canada’s aspiring painters went off to study in England or the United States until the late 1870s, when Paris became the place to be. While the cosmopolitan French capital must have been a revelation to provincial and urban Canadian artists alike, most preferred painting country scenes like Bruce’s to the capital city’s bustling boulevards, cafés, and nightlife.

James Wilson Morrice, “The Ferry, Quebec” (1907), oil on canvas, 62 × 81.7 cm, Purchased 1938, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (photo by NGC)

Lawren S. Harris, “Snow II” (1915), oil on canvas, 120.3 × 127.3 cm, Purchased 1916, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, © Family of Lawren S. Harris (photo by NGC)

A notable exception to this rule was James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924), a rebellious, self-taught reveler from a wealthy Montreal family. Though he spent most winters in his homeland (the show evidences a Canadian obsession with painting snow), Morrice took to Paris like a duck to water. He befriended Matisse, Oscar Wilde, and Paul Verlaine, was a juror at the 1908 Salon d’Automne, and introduced many young Canadians to the French capital’s vibrant art community. After James McNeill Whistler’s death, Morrice was hailed by critic Louis Vauxcelles as “the American painter who has achieved in France and at Paris … the most notable and well-merited place in the world of art.” Morrice’s misty street scenes share some of Vuillard’s quiet mystery, but perhaps his most interesting works are the ones from further afield: his sparse, pastel-tinged Caribbean paintings have tantalizing hints of Gauguin as well as contemporary artist Peter Doig.

Another standout is Helen McNicoll (1879–1915), a deaf Toronto painter who came to France a generation after Morrice. Though her career was cut short by her untimely death at age 36, McNicoll’s insistently focused, buoyantly colored canvases showcase a new kind of woman who is intimate, assertive, and often represented on the canvas by the artist’s partner, the British painter Dorothea Sharpe. Whether they are depicted reading, sewing, or sketching, McNicoll seems more interested in women’s interior worlds and creative pursuits than their idyllic natural or bourgeois surroundings. The artist did not have much success back home with her Impressionist-flavored works, but her principles won out a few years after her death when Canadian women gained the right to vote.

Helen McNicoll, “In the Tent” (1914), oil on canvas, 80 × 59.5 cm, Private Collection, Toronto (photo by Thomas Moore)

Curiously, by the time Canadian artists arrived, Impressionism was already going out of style in France. Still, Canadians adopted what they could from the controversial style and adapted it to life and art in their native land. World-renowned British Colombian Emily Carr’s (1871–1945) Frenchified fauvism morphed into something much more modern once she tackled totem poles and Canadian indigenous settlements in the early 1900s, and Newfoundlander Maurice Cullen (1866–1934) brought Monet’s measured softness into his snow-capped scenes. Some Canadian painters portrayed the rising industrialization of their hometowns, while others captured the ubiquitous snow in an endless array of colors. A few retained creative and commercial connections with France, while others invested in their homeland’s art scene. The exhibition ends with works by members of the Group of Seven and Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group, ushering in a new era for Canadian art.

Emily Carr, “Autumn in France” (1911), oil on paperboard, 49 × 65.9 cm, Purchased 1948, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa (photo by NGC)

Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons continues at the Fondation de l’Hermitage (Route du Signal 2, Lausanne, Switzerland) through May 24. It then travels to Musée Fabre (Montpellier, France) June 13–September 27, 2020 and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa, Canada) October 30, 2020–March 21, 2021. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. The exhibition was organized by the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa.

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Lauren Moya Ford

Lauren Moya Ford is a writer and artist. Her writing has appeared in Apollo, Artsy, Atlas Obscura, Flash Art, Frieze, Glasstire, Mousse Magazine, and other publications.

One reply on “Unearthing Canada’s Impressionist Legacy”

  1. Thank you for introducing me to Canada’s ‘lost treasures’, but I must point out that the first painting is not depicting a spring day. It is in fact mid- to late summer. The drying haystack and the poppies are your hints– !

    Depending on El Niño, global warming (or whatever takes your fancy), I’d venture it’s late July to all of August. Spring it is not.

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