Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery

    

Photo: Courtesy Arnoldsche Verlagsanstalt GmbH

My first thought upon receiving a review copy of this book was, “My, this book is big!” My second thought was, “My, this book is beautiful!”

Beauty and size aside, Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery by A.K. Prakash is an astonishingly comprehensive look at Impressionism, from its early origins in France to its influence on the Group of Seven.

Prakash has a highly engaging and accessible writing style that manages to be both scholarly and content-rich. Beginning in Paris during the 1850s, Prakash explores the environment that gave rise to Impressionism, and provides readers with a primer on the movement’s early days. Influences as diverse as Japanese prints, photography, ocular science, and even Baudelaire are all given their due, as is something as simple as the invention of paint in tubes, which made it easier for artists to paint en plein air. As Renoir once noted, “Without tubes of paint, there would have been no Impressionism.”

Dating the official birth of Impressionism from the first exhibition of Impressionist work in 1874, Prakash presents leading lights of the movement, such as Monet, Manet, Degas and Renoir, as well as Neo-Impressionists such as Pissarro, Signac and Seurat. From garret apartments to country idylls, life classes to cabarets, Prakash readily evokes the heady world of fin-de-siècle Paris.

  

Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté, March Thaw, Evening, Arthabaska (1913), oil on canvas, 73 x 92.1 cm. The Power Corporation of Canada Art Collection/Collection Power Corporation du Canada

He also has a wonderful eye for interesting anecdotes. Describing Brittany, he quotes a visiting artist who complained that the local farmers had become woefully attuned to the possibility of a few extra sous. Coming upon an artist painting a field of flowers, farmers would suddenly decide that the field needed cutting. Any hapless artist in the midst of painting said field would either have to start over, or pay the farmer to go away.

From Paris, Prakash transports readers across the Atlantic, and into the homes of wealthy Americans. Americans had little interest in Impressionist art at first, calling it everything from “Communism incarnate” to “magnificent insanities.” Interestingly, it was American Impressionist artist Mary Cassatt who helped create a significant market for Impressionist art — usually by badgering her rich friends and relations into buying a work or two.

At Prakash notes, Cassatt and a group of art dealers ultimately turned the tide. Some of the world’s finest museum collections of Impressionist art began life in the homes of America’s wealthy. Interestingly, there are now many more Monets in American collections than there are in France.

  

William Blair Bruce, Red Rock, Saint-Nazaire (1889), oil on canvas, 27.5 x 35.3 cm. Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ontario, Bruce Memorial, 1914

Prakash next looks north to Canada: heart and soul of the book. He begins by describing the lives of young Canadians in French art academies, but this is no dry account of places and names. We read, for example, how J.W. Morrice was once jokingly bonked on the head with a baguette by a fellow student, angering Morrice so much that he left the academy and never returned.

Prakash also explores the system that supported Canadian artists (or not) back home. Readers are once again invited into the salons and picture galleries of the wealthy: this time, Canadian titans of industry such as Van Horne, Drummond, Strathcona, and Ross. The names of Canada’s earliest dealers in Impressionist art are introduced as well — including, somewhat oddly, a couple of Montreal department stores that sold fine art on their top floors.

Following a rather rollicking ride through the genesis of Impressionism on both sides of the Atlantic, in the second half of the book Prakash begins an in-depth look at the work of 14 Canadian artists. The big names are all here — Cullen, Brymner, Suzor-Coté, Morrice and Gagnon — but so, too, are lesser-known artists such as William Blair Bruce, Franklin Brownell and Laura Muntz Lyall.

  

Laura Muntz Lyall, The Pink Dress (1897), oil on canvas, 36.8 x 47 cm, private collection. Photo: Thomas Moore

Each is introduced with a two-page spread that includes a full-page photograph, along with a rather virtuoso paragraph summing up the artist’s life and work. The pages that follow describe the artist’s life, studies and artistic legacy, again with Prakash’s trademark attention to interesting detail. We learn, for example, that William Brymner — later to become a renowned art teacher himself — was distinctly underwhelmed by the teaching in Paris academies. “Master is perhaps not an appropriate word,” he wrote to his mother. “They are rather celebrated artists who deign to give their advice twice a week.”

A generous selection of works — many of which are found in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada — accompanies each biographical profile. However, instead of focusing primarily on the stories behind Impressionist masterworks, Prakash discusses J.W. Morrice’s small pochades, as well as the fact that Morrice was a talented flutist. And that Helen McNicoll was profoundly deaf, perhaps influencing her creation of figures with “an inner stillness, reflecting the artist’s own silent world.” He also describes Clarence Gagnon’s later fascination with the traditional handicrafts of rural Quebec, leading him to produce designs for hooked rugs and tableware.

 

Clarence Gagnon, Evening on the North Shore (1924), oil on canvas, 77 x 81.6 cm, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo © NGC   

Many of the artists have been sadly neglected over the years, as their work has fallen out of favour. Prakash notes this neglect, then goes on to describe how various reputations are currently being restored. To Prakash, each artist in this book is worthy of notice, and each is treated with a gentle respect.

Leaving no stone left unturned, Prakash ends with a section featuring “artists influenced by Impressionism.” This diverse group includes some surprising names such as Robert Harris, Percy Woodcock, four members of the Group of Seven and David Milne. Each is given at least two pages, including a well-rounded essay on their life and work — and the links to Impressionism are not as tenuous as you might think.

Even the appendices are a nice surprise. One contains the entire text of a speech given by artist and art educator William Brymner discussing Impressionism — and, one might say, the original “shock of the new.” The other provides a list of European addresses for Canadian Impressionists from 1874 to 1924, along with recent photographs for anyone interested in making a pilgrimage.

  

Arthur-Dominique Rozaire, Nudes on the Beach (1914), oil on canvas, 52.1 x 48.3 cm. Private collection

As Guy Wildenstein notes in his introduction, Impressionism in Canada “makes a fundamental contribution to art history by acknowledging the Canadian artists who gleaned much from the French but, in their improvisations, managed to transmute what they learned into an art reflecting the aesthetic concerns of their compatriots and the times in which they lived and worked.” Or, said another way: Impressionism in Canada effectively brings Canadian Impressionism out of relative obscurity, and into the light, where it belongs.

For those who think they know everything there is to know about Canadian Impressionism, this book is sure to offer a number of surprises. For those who love Impressionism, but know little about it, this book will be a revelation. And for those who simply love a beautiful book, this is definitely a must-have.

A.K. Prakash is a Toronto-based art patron, collector and independent art advisor. He sits on the Board of the National Gallery of Canada Foundation, and has written two other books on Canadian art: Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists (2008) and Canadian Art: Selected Masters from Private Collections (2003).

Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery by A.K. Prakash, with a foreword by Guy Wildenstein and an introduction by William H. Gerdts, is available from the National Gallery of Canada Bookstore.

 

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