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

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

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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 just this integration of disparate elements which is immediately convincing in A September Gale, Georgian Bay (plate1), even if we are not familiar with the series it culminates. Each colour-form, every mass and line is treated as a directed dynamic component of the total energy-expressive content of the painting, is given a vector bearing on the equilibrium of tensions which constitutes the picture's strength. The element in which this is most tellingly achieved is, not surprisingly, the handling of light; complete independence from the earlier rhetorical approach is established, and the light is accepted and rendered as seen, uneven in distribution and integral in its intensity to the colour and modulation of form. The rich brushing of the sky in the canvas study and the bold outline of forms in the rocks of the panel sketch are interlocked here as one technique, and excitingly  extended to the waves to bind them into the expressive whole. Slight but significant improvements in composition are made throughout the picture: the central tree breaks the upper framing edge with a final twist, and two branches also break the upper edge to the left of the trunk, lending additional impetus; the horizon silhouette of blown trees is most succinctly stated; across the bottom just a lip of rock is allowed to suggest linear tension at the frame and to establish the point of view, which is again steeply down; the swirling inlet in lower right centre is effectively combined with the reeds, rocks and shrub of the foreground; the reeds have lost their art nouveau sinuosity to take on a more rugged dynamic character, and more reeds have been introduced at left centre; the middle distance island is given comparatively less significance and now contributes to the right-to-left movement rather than acting as an important counterpoise to the central tree; this is because the foreground shrub now sweeps across and around the trunk at centre, at once contributing to the movement and resisting the verticality of the central tree. Again, our excitement lies in recognizing the identity of these two apparently dissimilar aspects.

The large format and extended spatial reference of this painting are probably a reflection of the increasing 'panorama' of J. E. H. MacDonald's works of 1920 and 1921. (39) More specific influence is undoubtedly traceable to Varley's treatment of the same subject in Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (plate 13). (40) The waves rolling in from the right, in Varley's finished canvas and the panel sketch for it, (41) may very well have led Lismer to unify his technique and his formal structure in the bay, and thereby to give the waves a crucial expressive role. But their nature is far removed from the chromatically charged sensitivity of Varley; Lismer's large canvas is essentially a culmination of his entire previous development.

J. B. Mcleish rightly points out the extent of Lismer's achievement here:

"Not merely the bold and skilful attack in composition and the impressive use of colour, but rather the cumulative effect of these as developed from themes of great poetic strength, and conveying a qua lit y and mood of nearly epic dimensions, made it clear that Lismer had taken giant strides, not merely as crafts- man, but as beholder and interpreter." (42)

We need not exaggerate the importance of this growth: MacDonald reached a mature style suitable to the northern landscape earlier, Varley was by far the greater colourist, and Thomson beyond question a more original spirit. But this study of Lismer's development makes it possible to appreciate the scope and the specific direction of his increasing powers; as seen through his paintings culminating in September Gale (plate1), his development constitutes a profound and moving statement of a man's response to his world.

This study could be very much enhanced by painting-by-painting analyses of the work of MacDonald, Thomson, Varley and others in this period, and by exploration into Lismer's development of Georgian Bay subject matter in subsequent years. It is to be hoped that these examinations will be forthcoming, so that we may begin to speak with greater authority and less generalization about this extremely important period in the development of Canadian art.

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