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

Bulletin 12 (VI:2), 1968

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On a Portrait by Alfred Pellan

by Jean-René Ostiguy
Research Curator (Canadian Art)
The National Gallery of Canada

Article en français

Page  1

Between 1935 and 1940, Alfred Pellan was considered one of the promising young painters residing in Paris. The French critic Jacques Lassaigne understood his personality very well when he wrote, on the occasion of Pellan's first one-man show at the Académie Ranson in 1935: "The still lifes which Pellan has just exhibited, profuse and cleverly arranged, with sharp and restrained use of colour, are the work of a temperament so rich that it can borrow from everyone without owing to anyone."

If Pellan underwent many influences during those years, it was perhaps to counterbalance that of Picasso which was strong on him. The painting Jeune fille aux anémones (Girl with Anemones) (c. 1932), purchased recently by the National Gallery of Canada, stands as proof of this and summarizes very well the artist's contribution to Canadian art during his early period. First it shows how, by the use of transparent and opaque colours, by a play of thin layer - and heavy impastos - a technique that he learned from his first master, Lucien Simon - Pellan gives life to his canvas. The painting also compares well with Robert Delaunay's portrait of Tristan Tzara, on account of the importance given to pure colour orchestration. However, the real influence here is that of Picasso, whose 1932 retrospective exhibition, at the Galerie Georges Petit, Pellan had greatly admired. Girl with Anemones resembles the portrait of Olga Picasso in as much as in both pictures rich decorative elements surround and enhance the figure of the sitter. But it is rather with later Picassos that it should be compared, namely those of the Harlequin series. Several Picasso drawings of seated women reproduced in Zervos's catalogue raisonné might also have inspired Pellan. Furthermore, the entire background of the Pellan picture can be explained by the artist's admiration of Picasso paintings.

Pellan probably painted some twenty-five figure or portrait paintings, and the National Gallery already owned the Jeune comédien (Young Actor) (c. 1935). The new acquisition, besides its intrinsic artistic merits, lends itself to an interesting comparison with another portrait of a handsome young woman by a Canadian artist: Vera (c. 1929) by Frederick H. Varley, also in the National Gallery's collection. While the Pellan portrait gives more importance to the imaginative formal arrangement in the composition, the Varley emphasizes an almost mystical devotion to the sitter.

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