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 

From York Mills (plate 3), probably painted in the early spring of 1913, until his 1916 pictures of his garden at Thornhill and his removal that year to Halifax, Lismer's landscapes appear to have been exclusively Georgian Bay or Algonquin Park scenes. These works reflect not only his own appreciation of those regions but also, as has been well chronicled, that of his companions. The genesis of the national school in these early years was a group phenomenon in the best sense, with each individual finding his own solutions to his own painter's problems, while profiting from the encouragement and solidarity of feeling of others working in parallel directions. Thomson's brilliant use of colour undoubtedly confirmed Lismer's growing chromatic range, and Jackson's The Edge of the Maple Wood (14) exhibited in 1911, directed the attention of Lismer and the others consciously to Canadian landscape as a subject and indicated the possibility of discovering a technique appropriate to it. J. E. H. MacDonald's 1913 canvas The Lonely North (plate 4), (15) with its concentration on sunlight and the movement of clouds and water at Go Home Lake, was almost certainly a seminal work for Lismer's development of the theme.

Very close to the MacDonald painting in concept and execution is the earliest known treatment of our subject by Lismer, the 1913 canvas entitled simply Georgian Bay (plate 5), presented to the National Gallery of Canada by the artist in 1955. (16) The composition has obvious affinities to that of York Mills (plate 3), but is even simpler; the horizon of trees here begins to take on the silhouette character which soon becomes distinctive. (17) The artist's chief interest, like MacDonald's, is in the drama of sunlight broken by grey clouds and shimmering over the bay; his problem, as yet unresolved, is what may be described as a rhetorical approach to this drama. The pulsating rays stream from a central source, baffled by clouds and reflected by waves, lending a certain life to the whole; but there is no corresponding plastic expression for their energy in form or colour, nor are they reconciled in composition with the strong Left-to-right thrust of wind and waves. The painter has found his vocabulary, but not his syntax. Comparing The Lonely North (plate 4) with Georgian Bay (plate 5) we sense immediately that MacDonald, Lismer's senior by 12 years, is at this point the more mature painter.

The use of impasto in Georgian Bay (plate 5) to highlight wave and cloud indicates Lismer's appreciation of the relevance of thicker and more textured pigment to his concern with light and energy. However, the lack of structural and chromatic equivalents for these preoccupations may lead us to suspect some secondary derivation from impressionism or quasi-impressionism at this point. This hypothesis is strengthened by the large 1914 canvas The Guide's Home, AIgonquin. (18) The importance of this painting has, however, been exaggerated because of its size, subject and early date. Seen in the context of other works of the period, it is a unique offshoot rather than a typical early painting: it had few if any predecessors, and no further development in Lismer's career. Even the panel sketch for the painting (19) shows more interest in the rough texture of the subject and in the blue sky as  a colour plane than in evanescent light-and-shadow effects. In the larger painting the purple-blue shadows peculiar to the derivative North American impressionists of the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries, the attempt to capture the atmosphere of the moment, and the choice of subject all contribute to the general 'impressionist' aspect.

Another painting of 1914 which looks back to the artist's sources is Road through the Bush. (20) This canvas shows a lamentable the atricality not uncommon in followers of Constable, and the origins of what I have called a 'rhetorical' approach to light are found in this cliché composition and treatment of the sun breaking into a clearing where horses and loggers are staged between trees that are virtually curtain, wings and backdrop. The upper-left source of light is conventionally echoed  in the reflections on the leaves, lower right, while the coloration is the standard autumn palette.

These exceptions aside, the Algonquin Park works parallel Lismer's development in the Georgian Bay paintings. A swirling cloud  mass and a horizon of trees in silhouette are seen in a 1913 panel in the Art Gallery of Ontario; (21) in a 1914 work also in that collection, a panel entitled Lake in Autumn, (22) the foreground trees are used as vertical bonds for the horizontal layers of foreshore, lake, distant shore and sky, in a manner only slightly more adventurous (due to a more open com- position) than The Banks of the Don (plate 2). In Lake in Autumn also we see a stronger and surer colour sense, with the russet-orange hills, purplish lake and green foreground resolving the planes of the landscape in chromatic terms better than many works of this date.

No Georgian Bay painting from 1914 was known until the rediscovery last year of Breezy Weather, Georgian Bay (plate 6) (23) in a storage area of The New Brunswick Museum. The canvas is evidently a direct development from the National Gallery's Georgian Bay (plate 5) of the previous year. The change of title is If significant, and the general concept is markedly closer to September Gale (plate 1). Perhaps most striking is the introduction of a steeply pitched rocky foreground which defines the artist's point of view and relates his familiar composition of horizontal bands in perspective to a more complex and adventurous statement of depth. The foreshore here assumes the fundamental outline which will be retained in September Gale (plate 1), and the vectors of the movement of the waves are also resolved. The trees on the horizon have taken on a more definite character, although they are not yet actively contributing to the action of the scene. The contoured mobile forms of the clouds recall York Mills (plate 3) of the previous year, and the colouring appears to substantiate the reference to 'impressionism' in this period. In the bay, however, the strong play of blues, as in the sky of York Mills (plate 3), gives some evidence of the more daring colour dynamics to come.

These brilliant blues are extended to both sky and bay in the 1915 oil-on-cardboard sketch entitled MacCallum's Island, Georgian Bay, (24) presented to the Art Gallery of Ontario by the artist in 1951. Lismer is here beginning to sense the need for a bolder colour range to match the energy and light he wishes to convey. Perhaps the most radical departure, however, is the use of a vertical rock mass in the lower left instead of the usual trees. Although this compositional challenge is not; too successfully met, largely because it precludes a foreground which could establish point of view, it does show the direction of  the painter's interest. The horizon of trees is present again, and to the immediate right of the vertical rock passage are several horizontal outcrops which could be said to anticipate the similar forms at the left edge of September Gale (plate 1).

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