Two Moments in the Life and Work
of James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924)
by Lucie Dorais
Morrice's sketch books had never, until now, been considered as primary sources for the study
of this artist's life and works. And yet most of the twenty-four sketch
books still extant can be dated, and thus we are able to gain a fuller
understanding of his artistic development. Their numerous inscriptions
tell us about such details as the artist's friends, interests, and travels.
Two sketch books (National Gallery of Canada, accession numbers 7419 and
7420) are used in this discussion as the basis for a detailed study of
two important moments in Morrice's career.
Sketch book No. 7420 can be accurately dated from the winter of
1896-1897, for Morrice left Paris at the end of November 1896 to spend
the winter and spring months in Canada, including an extended stay at Beaupré
and Quebec City. During this sojourn he met Maurice Cullen (1866-1934) for
the first time. Other ad dresses jotted down on the pages of the sketch
book tell us about his comings and goings in Montreal and Paris.
Most of the drawings in the sketch book are in pencil, although
a few are enhanced by using blue ink (see fig. 2). Some of the Parisian
scenes are very similar to those by Maurice Prendergast (1859-1924) done
a few years earlier; they also strongly resemble the work Robert Henri
(1865-1929) was producing at the same time and in the years following, suggesting the influence of Morrice over Henri rather than the opposite.
(Both American artists were, at some point, friends of Morrice in Paris,
but they themselves did not meet until years later.)
Morrice used some of the drawings he made in Quebec City and
Beaupré as a basis for canvases probably painted in Canada. The
sketch and oil Quebec Citadel by Moonlight (figs 3, 4) show the
still-prevailing influence of Whistler in subject-matter and technique.
Village in Winter (oil on canvas, c. 1897; Montreal Museum
of Fine Arts) and Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré (figs 5, 6) illustrate
the possible influence of Cullen: the thick paint, the bright colours are
more adapted to the rendering of the Quebec climate than is the Whistlerian
idiom. A few other drawings in the sketch book have also been used for canvases
- On the Road (oil on canvas, c. 1901?; MMFA)
and Evening, Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré (oil on canvas, c.
1897; private collection, Montreal). They have also been used as
the basis for oil sketches on panel - Snow Scene (c. 1897; Barnes
Foundation, Merion, Pa.) and Winter Scene, Horses and Sleighs (c. 1897;
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). Both Snow Scene and Winter Scene, Horses and
Sleighs are derived from the same pencil sketch.
But most of the drawings done in Quebec City and Beaupré or Sainte-Anne
have never been used for paintings, although subject-matter points to that
of much later works, such as in Ice Bridge at Quebec (fig. 7).
Sketch book No. 7419 and its companion Sketch-book No. 1 (MMFA)
were used by Morrice during a trip to Venice in 1901 (see fig. 8). Sketch
book No. 7419 also contains scenes of the Paris quays and two views of towns
in the Saint-Malo area. One is Saint-Servan Harbour (fig. 9), on
which is based a canvas with the same title (c. 1901-1902; private
The years 1901-1902 marked a turning point in Morrice's career.
He stopped sending works to Canadian exhibitions in order to concentrate
on the European artistic scene. The works he exhibited at London, Paris,
and Brussels during the fall and winter (many of them derived from drawings
in this sketch-book, including figs 9, 12) were unanimously praised by
A comparison between a drawing of Notre-Dame (fig. 10) and a
photograph (fig. II) and another between a drawing of the Grand Canal
in Venice (fig. 12) and the resulting painting (fig. 13) show that Morrice's
pencil sketches were intended solely as documentation. The colours and
the atmospheric effects were recorded on small wooden panels in a freer
style (fig. 15). Here, as had occurred in Quebec earlier and was to do
so in North Africa later, the discovery of a new location gave Morrice
the incentive to experiment with new techniques or new colour effects - in
this particular case, the "golden hour" of the Venetian sunset.s
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