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 

The National Gallery's A Westerly Gale, Georgian Bay of 1916 (plate 7) (25) is undoubtedly the culminating work in this series, and the major achievement of Lismer's career before his departure for Halifax. In it a new complexity and intensity of expression is reached. The steeply pitched falling foreground with its indication of the artist's view- point is developed from its inception in Breezy Weather, Georgian Bay (plate 6); here it is less dramatic and perhaps less successful, but its importance for the theme is clearly acknowledged. For this reason the spatial and volumetric field of reference of September Gale (plate 1) is first anticipated. Also for the first time the foreground trees are rugged correlatives of the vitality of landscape, weather and light; compositionally replacing the vertical rock in the lower left quarter of MacCalIum's Island, Georgian Bay, they are as yet somewhat hesitant and insubstantial. In the right foreground the blades of long grass are also discovered, with their expressive strokes reflecting the inclined verticals of the horizon of trees; this relationship, much altered and improved, persists in September Gale (plate 1). The painter also finds here the dynamic potential of the trees themselves seen in silhouette against the lowering sky. The source of light at the horizon far left is a vestigial remnant of the 'rhetorical' preoccupation with sky effects, and the attention to overall tone with recurring mauve tints is perhaps a last hint of impressionist influence; but the thickly brushed paint gives the work a distinctive and authoritative stamp.

In the late summer of 1916 Lismer moved to Halifax, remaining there until August 1919. Dated 1917, however, is another National Gallery painting, Georgian Bay, Spring. (26) Since no return visit is recorded or remembered, this large canvas appears to have been worked up from an earlier sketch or from memory. In its singular essay of a vertical format and the employment of rather obvious light and colour devices - the calendar-like horizon and the attention-holding dabs of colour in the large foreground tree - this work has the marks of a studio painting distant from time and place of inspiration. In the new format the trees and the steeply plunging viewpoint are quite ineffectuel. The painting does, however, indicate clearly the direction of Lismer's interest in the need for bolder colour and a striking non-impressionist rendering of light. And for the first time his clouds take on, however unsuccessfully, that substantive solidity which hereafter contributes to the structure of his works.

Two sketches by the artist, bequeathed to the National Gallery by Dr MacCallum, may be associated with these years. (27) One, the panel entitled Sunset, (28) is another example of the lingering influence of Constable, both in choice of subject and in the stroked light rays in the sky; the handling of paint and the brilliant coloration suggest a date not far from the 1917 Georgian Bay, Spring. One real advance here is the most successful use compositionally of the horizon silhouette of trees. Stormy Sky, (29) the larger of the two panels, is certainly later since it is painted with the impasto which the artist developed in his Canadian War Memorials canvases. The expressive resources of turbulent movement in the sky are fully realized here, but the lower quarter of the canvas, with the tentative spit of land and bush in the left corner and the uncertain viewpoint, shows the painter unable to resolve all the elements of his theme. The impasto and colouring, particularly the juxtaposition of deep blues in sky and water, make a 1919-1920 date credible for this painting.

All other extant works of the 1916-1919 period are either views around the artist's former home at Thornhill, Ontario, or drawings and paintings around Halifax, most of them done for the Canadian War Memorials collection. In the Thornhill views the use of impasto gradually increases, and further explorations of brilliant colour in strong light are seen. Comparison with Lawren Harris' house and street paintings suggests itself, but the closest parallel is J. E. H. MacDonald's Evening, Thornhill, which has recently been redated to about 1914-17. (30)

In addition to an advance in Lismer's handling of bold colours in light without half-tones, two of these paintings involve important discoveries in composition. In the 1916 canvas Afternoon Sunlight, Thornhill, Ontario, now in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, (31) the sinuous lines of the trees link the horizontal layers of the composition in a far more interesting and convincing manner than did the trees in the 1914 Lake in Autumn. Also in the Montreal Museum painting we see for the first time trees breaking the top framing edge of the painting; the different sense of space suggested by this cropping of the trunks and the dynamics of the sinuous trees and branches are key ideas in the development of September Gale (plate 1). Here they are used to express the stasis of winter calm, but by relating them to his earlier work the artist will be able to assert more satisfactorily the lash of storm and rain. In another Montreal Museum canvas, Springtime on the Farm, dated 1917 (plate 8), (32) the gnarled 'elbow' bough low on a prominent tree appears, a direct precursor of similar forms in September Gale (plate 1), and the tree's branches are again allowed to break the top (and side) framing edges of the painting; because this occurs all across the top of the picture the result is a simple horizontal spread. But the artist is developing an idea. There is no direct evidence of art nouveau derivation in this development, although doubtless its applications in graphic arts had influenced Lismer.

The weakness of the Thornhill paintings is the artist's frequent failure to relate planes in space, probably because of his preoccupation with the colour-light specifics of his subject and the thickening scumble of his paint surface. By 1918 this scumble had become a lush impasto and the problems were not resolved. But in one of the Canadian War Memorials drawings, Looking Astern on a Sub-Chaser (plate 9), (33) some advances are made in the direction of September Gale (plate 1). It is interesting that the extension of the mast to the framing edge is retained in the well-known canvas, The 'Olympic' with Returned Soldiers. (34) Otherwise, the Canadian War Memorials works do not represent an important advance.

Lismer's return to Toronto in August 1919 began a highly creative period. Three major paintings were executed on the Georgian Bay subject within the next two years, while his trips to Algoma with Lawren Harris and A. Y. Jackson in the spring of 1920 and 1921 introduced new themes which are not in the scope of this study. The 1920 canvas Rock, Pine and Sunlight, Go Home Bay, now in the Art Gallery of Ontario, (35) shows Lismer turning aside from the specific open-water subject we have been studying. Once again, the influence of J. E. H. MacDonald may have been important: MacDonald's Autumn Colou, of 1916, (36) also known as Rocks and Maple, is very close in subject and treatment to Lismer's panel sketch for the larger painting. The chief alterations in the finished canvas are Lismer's characteristic introduction of a vivid foreground and the horizon silhouette of conifers. Real advances are made, however, in the artist's ability to state the brilliant but uneven play of light on his landscape without exaggeration or false drama. The impasto of 1918 is gone. It is interesting to note that in the sketch and in another panel study related to this painting, (37) the trees still go beyond the top framing edge; in the final canvas the artist discarded this device, undoubtedly in order to gain a definite balance and monumentality. Lismer's increasing sophistication is evident.

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