National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 5 (III:1), 1965

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J. M. Barnsley in the National Gallery

by J. Barry Lord,
Curator, The New Brunswick Musuem

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Referring again to the scrapbook of drawings, we discover that this independent direction soon took the artist to the coast of France - the harbours of Le Havre, Dieppe and St Malo. We have no evidence that Barnsley knew Boudin personally, but some of the scrapbook sketches, St Malo, la plage (18) for instance, indicate that he must have seen the great French sea painter's work in Salon exhibitions 1883-1887 (19) and possibly in the Durand-Ruel comprehensive Boudin show of 1883. (20) The chance collocation of modishly costumed figures and cabanas in the breezy open space of the beach and the economic but agitated use of pencil almost certainly indicate a knowledge and admiration of Boudin's characteristic oils.

The fresh air of Boudin's spirited manner improved upon an earlier Victorian influence - that of the English painter E. W. Cooke, R. A. (d. 1880). Barnsley had sketched Cooke's A Fishing Haven on the Zuyder Zee in a St Louis private collection in 1882. (21) The subject of the National Gallery's La jetée du Pollet, Dieppe (Fig. 3), like many of Barnsley's harbour scenes, is very close to the work-worn fleet and toiling figures of coast genre in Cooke's oil. The Victorian slickness evident in the British marine artist's treatment of this theme probably accounts for the element of 'finish' overlying the vitality of Barnsley's larger canvases.

For many years exhibited and published erroneously as 'Dieppe Harbour' and later 'Dieppe, jetée des Poulets' in National Gallery catalogues, this work is in fact the Salon painting of 1885, La jetée du Pollet, Dieppe. Doubts about this identification are resolved by a description in the Dictionnaire d'Art Veron for that year, which adds the comment, Très bonne marine paysage d'un aspect tendre, juste et vrai. (22) Other favourable comments (23) apparently gratified the artist who wrote to the St Louis Republican:

'My salon picture is hung on the second line, with only a picture the same size under and in a good position. It was mentioned in the Journal des Artistes, the day after the opening, in an article they call "The Salon as the Crow Flies." (24)

Further clippings in the Republican indicate that this work was exhibited at the St Louis Exposition, probably in the same year, and sold 'to a well-known art connoisseur' of that city. (25) Perhaps the transaction was never completed; or the canvas may have been returned to Mrs Barnsley in view of her financial difficulties by 1894, when she displayed it in both Royal Canadian Academy and Montreal Spring exhibitions. At least two other paintings were given back to the artist's mother for re-sale. (26)

Another valuable insight into the painter's manner of working is afforded by comparison of this large canvas with the oil sketch for it in the collection of Mrs Henry Munderloh, Montreal. Although the study may have been one of several, it is nevertheless evident that the translation from sketch to finished work is more complex and purposive here than it was with On the Seine, Courbevoie. Not only are new figures and additional detail supplied (27) but the composition, the direction and position of the ship on the left for instance, and the mood of the subject have been altered considerably in the studio; we can observe Cooke's influence clearly at work. The study itself may well be one of the earliest plein air oil paintings in Canadian art history.

Only one subsequent influence obscured the clarity and vigour shown in Barnsley's marines and better landscapes of the mid-1880s. In 1888 Anton Mauve (b. 1838) died at the height of his considerable popularity and the summer of 1890 found Barnsley at Laren, 'the Barbizon of Holland', which Mauve had made famous. Perhaps recalling Loir's interest in nocturnes, the artist explored the dark luminosities of charcoal, black chalk and pencil in drawings like St Malo, la plage (Fig. 4), and adopted a heavy, murky use of paint in his oils. (28) Other qualities of the Hague School, derived from its French Barbizon antecedents - attentive observation and objective recording of rural and domestic genre - are evident in drawings of this period like Interior with Figure (Fig. 5), and in the oil entitled In the Fields, Holland (Fig. 6).

In the latter work, particularly in the handling of planes along the horizon, we may also discern some evidence of a most interesting characteristic of Barnsley's last painting year - an increasing simplification of subject and treatment alike, culminating in a marked economy of pencil strokes to indicate sky, shore and sea in a series of drawings around Cape Ann, Massachusetts, (29) and a similar reduction of means to achieve maximum statement of atmosphere, colour and light in oils. (30) Undoubtedly related to this new facility was his development at this time of a wash technique in water-colours, (31) which contrasts with his usual thick handling of that medium. Unfortunately these qualities are not predominant in the two National Gallery works of 1891, the water-colour Evening and the etching, Study from Nature (Fig. 7), although a good selection of the spare black ink drawings of the last days may be seen in yet another sketch book (acc. no.771), dated 1890-1891. This search for a 'purer' way to paint ever simpler marine subjects might be interpreted as a symptom of the artist's approaching schizophrenic withdrawal.

But the rediscovery of J. M. Barnsley has not added a psychiatric case study to the annals of art history. Rather he takes his place as a quietly effective painter, able to appreciate and convey precisely the tang of the harbour, the smack of salt wind, the gathering shadows of a field at dusk. His moment in the development of Canadian painting may be termed 'pre-impressionism'; certainly he fills that gap in the Canadian assimilation of French styles between the Barbizon manners of Roratio Walker (1858-1938) and the impressionist technique of Maurice Cullen (1866-1934), who studied in Paris just after Barnsley's residence there. (32) As the retrospective exhibition catalogue points out, he may well have influenced the young Morrice. In any case, his life's work has at last been offered for evaluation and appreciation; it may be hoped that he will soon be joined by others of his time who merit our closer study.

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