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

Bulletin 5 (III:1), 1965

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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J. M. Barnsley in the National Gallery

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

Résumé en français

Pages  1  |  2  |  3 

The success of the national movement and parallel post-impressionist influences in Canadian painting together with the advent of contemporary American abstraction have diverted the attention of critics and historians until recent years from the considerable achievements of the artists of the late nineteenth century. James MacDonald Barnsley (1861-1929), who suffered a schizophrenic breakdown in January 1892 and never painted again, (1) has been particularly easy to ignore. Indeed, except for the exhibiting activity of his mother and his Montreal dealer, W. Scott & Sons Galleries, between 1892 and 1921, (2) it seems doubtful whether he would be remembered today at all. Many of the works Dow in the National Gallery and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts were acquired during that period, (3) and it was on them that Barnsley's reputation was based until the current travelling retrospective organized by the Vancouver Art Gallery. (4)

In the spring of 1964 I visited the National Gallery in order to study Barnsley's works in the collection - five oils, one water-colour, two sketch books, a number of unbound drawings and one etching. Miss Kathleen Fenwick, Curator of Prints and Drawings, with her usual acumen brought to my attention a scrapbook of over 140 drawings, the acquisition history and attribution of which were unknown. Donald Buchanan, author of the definitive volume on James Wilson Morrice (1865- 1924), (5) had several years ago suggested that some of the sketches might be by that artist. Many had been partially or totally destroyed - Miss Fenwick assumed by some child - with purple ink, crayon and pencil. But close familiarity with Barnsley's life and work made possible an attribution of the entire scrapbook to his hand; it was probably assembled by the artist's mother, Christina Barnsley (1829-1923), and acquired from her about the same time that most of the other graphic works entered the collection, about 1911- 1913, years when the aged woman was under particularly acute financial stress. The scratches, blots and scribbles are comparable to similar destructive marks in two other sketchbooks, (6) and undoubtedly date from the artist's derangement in 1892, when he is known to have destroyed many paintings and drawings in his studio, or from one of his subsequent periods of release from the Verdun mental hospital under his mother's care, (7) during which his general schizophrenic withdrawal was interrupted by unpredictable fits of violence. The identification of this large body of drawings (recently given acc. no.169) constitutes one of several major discoveries in the course of research for the Barnsley retrospective, and considerably enriches the range and depth of the artist's representation in Ottawa.

The earliest work in the collection, and the only one from his St Louis student period, is an etching formerly entitled simply 'Landscape' (acc. no.773). This print served as frontispiece to the December 1881 edition of the St Louis publication Art and Music, (8) and was probably clipped from a copy of that magazine by Mrs Barnsley before she sold it to the Gallery in 1913. The journal's list of contents entitles the work Study from Nature and adds the note 'Etched by J. M. Barnsley. Printed by J. M. Kershaw'. The subject is probably the Mississippi River, but may be the St Lawrence; the artist was sketching around Montreal, where his mother had relatives, on a return visit to Canada in the autumn of 1880. (9) The etching is typical of many illustrations executed by the artist for this magazine and two student journals of Washington University (10) where he was studying. They characteristically reveal an obvious talent for line and discerning powers of observation guiding a hand which consciously reaches out for a greater sensitivity than it can yet master.

It was in the Paris of 1883 that Barnsley fairly quickly attained the ability to state consummately the subtle variations of mood which had eluded him in Missouri. At this point the drawings found in Mrs Barnsley's scrapbook are most cogent. Along with one of the sketch books in Gerald Stevens' collection (Toronto) and another in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, (11) they provide an almost daily index of the artist's progress - a more and more delicate, almost timid use of pencil, growing facility in rendering and selecting detail, an increasing consciousness of the effects of light and a more refined choice of subject in order to concentrate on the moments of change at the edge of villages in the environs of Paris on the banks of the Seine.

Dramatic proof of this increased sophistication in Barnsley's painting is to be seen in an oil recently acquired by the National Gallery (Fig. 1). A fine pencil drawing of this scene in the Stevens collection is inscribed 'Courbevoie', locating it in the Parisian suburb just north of Puteaux where the artist lived. (12) He is at pains to capture the specific time of day and atmosphere before him; in the oil, details are altered freely, new figures are substituted and the lanterns are redesigned, (13) yet the basic contours and composition of the scene are retained and the original evening mood is tellingly evoked.

This dusk scene, which we have entitled On the Seine, Courbevoie, (14) derives directly in subject and treatment from Loir's immense (59" x 118") Le point du jour à Auteuil, crépuscule (15) (Fig. 2), which Barnsley had seen in the 1883 Paris Salon. Loir (1845-1916), encountering Barnsley's first Salon work, Le Quai St Bernard, (16) recognized a kinship between them and sought out the young painter in his Puteaux studio. (17) On the Seine, Courbevoie seems to have been painted in direct response to Loir's view of Auteuil. The refined treatment of light and shadow, the horizontal panorama viewpoint beside the Seine, the figures with their oblique suggestion of Degas are all taken directly from the Austrian-born painter who was then celebrated for his views of Paris - works which seem now to be a comfortable compromise between the impressionists' concern with the atmosphere of a passing moment and the conventional palette of an official Parisian school which honoured the Barbizon masters and acknowledged Courbet. Whatever Loir's role in French art history, his large nocturne demonstrates that he was a painter of no small merit, and for Barnsley at least he showed the way which soon led to an independent vision and accomplishment.

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