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

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

It is uncertain whether the 1921 canvas Pine Tree and Rocks (plate 10), now in the London Public Library and Art Museum, preceded or followed September Gale; it is definitely related, and can best be understood as a parallel study. The dominance of the tree with its trunk and limbs cropped by the framing edge, and the rugged but comparatively peaceful mood suggest the importance of the Thornhill paintings of 1916-17 to the artist's development of his theme. It is as if he had isolated his subject in the serenity of the Thornhill works, introduced it to its northern environment in this painting, and finally in September Gale (plate 1) was able to give it the vigour and expressive character he had discovered in A Westerly Gale, Georgian Bay (plate 7). In Pine Tree and Rocks (plate 10) the rock formations are no longer simply a supportive ground for foreground detail but for the first time play a real structural role in the picture. Both impasto and the hitherto common fauve-like dabs of colour are abandoned here, and a rich fully-brushed style with bold dark outlines and contour shading is found to have considerable expressive potential. The significance of the direction of the brush-stroke in lending dynamics to the colour and light energy of the subject is partly explored, in some areas with quite thin pigment. Because of the importance of the rocks, the viewpoint is as steeply up as it usually is down, and the horizon is rather conventionally indicated at far right with a strong blue. The sky is neglected because of the artist's preoccupation with tree and rocks, and the brown root in the lower-right foreground is a trite attention-getting device; but withal we sense that important strides have been taken, and we are ready to turn to the three paintings of the "September Gale" group.

In the Sketch for September Gale (plate 11), (38) now in the collection of Dr John L. Parnell of Vancouver, Lismer states with real brilliance the striking light and dramatic movement which at tract him to the subject. This strong right-to-left movement leaves the left third of his panel in some confusion. The lack of a strong vertical thrust, present in the final version in the tree breaking the top of the picture plane, allows the movement toward the left to control the picture exclusively, at the expense of the grandeur or monumentality which the painter intends. This fact and Lismer's use of taches of colour and some impasto in the waves indicate that the sketch was completed in 1920, before Pine Tree and Rocks (plate 10). The bold outline and contour brush-stroke are used in a rather rudimentary fashion for the rocks, in foreground and middle ground, and the silhouette horizon of trees in the wind is brought to the peak of its development. Cloud and foreground tree forms have yet to be given the original treatment explored in the rocks, and the shrubs in centre and lower right are ineffectual attempts to organize the space of that area. Another problem is the resolution of viewpoint, which is summarily indicated rather than stated here. But the subject matter, nascent since his experience of September 1913 is at last fully grasped with most of its details.

The penultimate work in the series is the Study for September Gale (plate 12), a 20 by 24 inch canvas in the collection of the Right Hon. Vincent Massey at Batterwood House in Canton, Ontario. Dated 1920, it is frankly a study and was not intended as an independent completed work. The left third of the subject is considerably clarified in this painting; the artist recognizes the need to articulate clearly foreground, middle and distance there in order to lend the desired monumental character to the central tree. Space is found for the two subsidiary tree forms to the left, although they remain quite flabby and inconclusive; it is as if Lismer is content to note them down, anticipating that he will be able to give them dramatic tension in the final version. Another important addition is the growth of reeds, lower right; their sinuous forms and the curve of the prominent elbow on the central tree, recalling the 1917 Thornhill painting Spring-time on the Farm (plate 8), perhaps suggest the lingering art nouveau influence, which the artist would be more likely to introduce in a studio canvas of this kind than in an in situ panel sketch. The reeds here remain embedded in the rocks and are accordingly less effective than in the final version; only in the larger painting will Lismer reconcile them with the swirling inlet of the bay, lower right, so that the force of that section of the painting is integrated with the rest of the work.

Another obvious gain in this study is the fact that the tree breaks the picture plane at the top of the canvas, the sources for which we have already noticed. But because we seem to see much more of the tree, and because its cropping is obscured by a single mass of foliage at the edge, the vertical thrust is far less telling than in the final version. The horizontal mass of the island in middle ground is retained as a compositional balance for this verticality, while the small shrub to the right of the central tree remains hardly developed from the Parnell sketch, not yet participating in the movement of the wind, nor introduced across the vertical movement as in the final painting. The rocks retain here a prominent  role right across the foreground, so that the picture is closer in spirit to the earlier simple composition of horizontal layers in perspective than is either the panel sketch or the finished canvas. The result is a somewhat static and less exciting viewpoint, more balanced and without the steep pitch of many of the works we have been examining. The banal compositional containing device of the root, lower right, developed from a shrub in the Parnell sketch and a similar element in Pine Tree and Rocks (plate 10), is another limiting factor which is discarded in the larger version. The other limit to the view on the right, the distant horizon, is here made more precise, and will be transposed directly into September Gale itself (plate 1).

Probably the most important discovery in this study is the rendering of the cloud forms as structural components of the volumetric unity of the painting, rather than mere ciphers for the play of light or opportunities for swirls of impasto. The contour shading of the cloud masses and Lismer's characteristic use of arbitrary blues, both of which appeared as early as 1913 in York Mills (plate 3), are here re-introduced to good advantage. His interest in light is allowed in this canvas to play a role subordinate to that of plastic structure. The fully-brushed sky and its active contour forms contrast with the lightly painted rocks and with the bay, which is treated with impasto to the right of the central tree and with taches to the left. Apparently the artist, having established the dynamics of movement and the vigour of the rocks in the panel sketch, turns in this study to develop the sky as an area of independent forms. In the final canvas his task is  to unify these disparate elements, particularly in the crucial area of the bay.

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