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

Bulletin 9-10 (V:1-2), 1967

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Georgian Bay and the Development  
of the September Gale Theme in 
Arthur Lismer's Painting, 1912-21

by Barry Lord, Associate Fellow, Dept. of Communications Conestoga College, Kitchener

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6 

A September Gale, Georgian Bay (plate 1) (1) is a major, perhaps the major, work in the painting career of Arthur Lismer. Like other enduring monuments of the Group of Seven period of Canadian art history, its widespread exhibition and reproduction have for many years ensured its place in our national collection of painting. J. B. McLeish, Lismer's biographer, recognized its importance in entitling his book September Gale. Further, it is one of the few large canvases which offer a convincing argument against the recent critical preference for the small panels of the Group. This article traces the development of the September Gale theme in Lismer's painting, particularly in his treatment of Georgian Bay subject matter; it is worth reflection perhaps that after almost fifty years, the needed painting-by-painting analysis of the Group's achievement has barely begun.

As McLeish points out, Arthur Lismer (b.1885) by the age of twenty had behind him seven years of apprenticeship at the Eadon Engraving Company in Sheffield and a seven- year night course at the Sheffield Art School. (2) The result of this early and intensive beginning of his career was a thorough training in drawing, soon put to use during his brief period as a newspaper cartoonist in Sheffield. Lismer has said that he considers himself the draughtsman of the Group, and that he came to Canada in 1911 as an illustrator. (3) Along with this early graphic training, however, he had considerable opportunity to familiarize himself with more painterly qualities during his year-and-a-half stay in Antwerp where he could most conveniently study Rubens." In London in 1909 he saw the famous Graf ton Gallery exhibition of French post-impressionists, including works by Cézanne and Van Gogh. (5) Much more important personally, because of Lismer's upbringing in a north-country setting, were the landscapes of John Constable. McLeish justly observes that Constable's idea of nature as the prime instructor, his romantic spiritualizing of landscape and his ability to find beauty in any fragment of the natural world are traits close to Lismer. (6)

This relation to Constable is clear in the earliest known painting by Lismer in Canada The Banks of the Don (plate 2) (7) which was first exhibited in 1912. This pleasant little panel, bequeathed to the National Gallery in 1944 by Dr. Jo Mo MacCallum, records an evident nostalgia for the English river which is the namesake of the Ontario stream, and clearly shows Constable's landscapes as being the inspiration of several ideas which Lismer would soon find his own way of expressing. The breezy sky, its light and colour seen through the bare trees, and the sense of motion in sky and river conveyed through Lismer's brush stroke all at test to his affinity with the most robust representatives of the English romantic landscape school. His training had given him respect for the painting traditions of the late eighteenth and early nineteenth centuries rather than a consuming interest in the subsequent developments of the Victorian era, although the somewhat feathery upper branches and twigs seen against the clouds and sky might be construed as a debt to Sisley or Pissarro.

The role of the trees in the composition of this picture, knitting together three horizontal bands of ground, river and sky, is one that is employed with growing sophistication by painters throughout this period. It is some- times suggested that this use of a tree form, as in September Gale (plate 1) or in Lawren Harris' North Shore, Lake Superior, (8) A. Y. Jackson's November (9) or Tom Thomson's The Jack Pine, (10) is a characteristic of the Group of Seven period. Its presence in The Banks of the Don (plate 2) proves that for Lismer at least it has earlier sources.

The foreground with its strong and fully brushed colours anticipates the expressive impasto to come in subsequent works. The painter has said that he brought with him from England a habit of paying particular attention to foregrounds, (11) an interest which he credits to the less open landscape of his native land. He affirms that in order to approach the Canadian scene he had to learn to render distance in terms of forms in motion rather than through receding tones. Thus it is not surprising that the most characteristic area of this early work, probably painted in the late fall of 1911, is the foreground, and we may expect to see him preoccupied with the problem of treating distance until he solves it in September Gale (plate 1). We should also note that the feeling of the land of Canada itself, particularly its difference from the English countryside, is a factor at least as important as the inheritance of painting schools or the influence of contemporary styles. This needs to be borne in mind when we are discovering sources for the Group in such diverse modes as art nouveau, fauve or Scandinavian painting.

Another early work painted not far from Toronto is the 1913 York Mills (plate 3) in the Charles S. Band collection. (12) This important canvas anticipates developments not fully matured until three years later. There is some characteristic difficulty in resolving the plane of the foreground in relation to the rest of the space, and the simply balanced composition again bears witness to the importance of Constable in the young painter's mind: the horizon of trees is not far removed in concept from The Banks of the Don (plate 2). But the adventurous grasp of the cloud forms by contour modelling; the bright and strongly articulated coloration, especially in the almost arbitrary choice of vivid blues in the sky growing lighter near the horizon; the feeling of wind movement conveyed by the dash of the painter's brush; and the brilliant treatment of light - these are all factors that make this work an exciting leap forward.

In September 1913, Lismer made his first trip to Dr MacCallum's cottage at Go Home Bay, and there experienced the storm which provided the subject matter of September Gale (plate 1) : the incident has been evocatively described by Mcleish. (13) An admirer of Constable could hardly fail to be drawn by the splendour of such weather, particularly by the dramatic play of light in the northland. Eight years were to pass, however, before the final realization on canvas of the epic qualities of northern Ontario which Lismer then first sensed.

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