Canadian Artists in Dialogue with Impressionism
Originating in France during the latter part of the 19th century, Impressionism would eventually spread beyond French borders to become a global art phenomenon. Its impact on Canadian artists, its reception in Canada and its role in the development of modern art in this country are explored in the National Gallery of Canada’s exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons. This ambitious undertaking reveals the contribution of Canadian artists, abroad and at home, who embraced the philosophy and techniques of Impressionism, and explores how the art of these Impressionists converged with – and diverged from – the art of their European counterparts. It examines when and how they were able to form variants of Impressionism at home, in harmony with their own traditions, and how they fashioned their approaches to the country’s distinct character and light.
Demonstrating the disparate ways in which Canadian artists engaged with French Impressionism and subsequent art movements – such as Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Art Nouveau – the exhibition focuses on seven different themes, spanning five decades and a wide variety of art practices. The exhibition examines the artists’ periods of study abroad, especially in France, and the impact on their art while painting in various locations: in urban settings such as Paris, in the French countryside, along the country’s northwest coast and beyond France. The exhibition also considers the emerging roles of women and children, whether depicted outdoors or within the domestic realm. The final two sections contrast changes in the artists' approaches upon returning to Canada, as they applied stylistic innovation and modernist principles to local themes. This proves that, regardless of the subject, concepts of modernity, depicted through transient light and atmosphere, became central to Canadian Impressionist paintings.
Paris, the capital of modern art at the time, was the initial magnet that drew Canadians to Europe, where they would seek training and hoped to further their artistic careers. Among the first to arrive were Montreal-born William Brymner and Halifax native Frances Jones, both settling in Paris in 1878. James MacDonald Barnsley (Montreal), Paul Peel (London) and William Blair Bruce (Hamilton) soon followed. Some enrolled at the École des Beaux-Arts, while others pursued their studies in the numerous private academies and artists’ ateliers in the city. A few of them advanced rapidly and were soon able to exhibit their paintings at the Paris Salon, benefitting from this coveted venue to garner public acclaim and international recognition.
Apart from James Wilson Morrice – and occasionally William Blair Bruce, Maurice Cullen and Clarence Gagnon – only a few Canadian artists chose the urban experience and the atmosphere of crowded cafés as a modern subject for their paintings. In fact, Morrice’s images of café culture, or other public gatherings, including seasonal “fêtes,” regatta or circus scenes, remain unique in Canadian art. In Omnibus, the artist’s focus is on the tantalizing effect of light bouncing off the wet pavement. In the modern city, movement was now possible thanks to the advent of modern transport, which helped invigorate urban interactions. The introduction of electricity improved navigation through the city after dark.
Although each artist experienced urban life differently, some congregated often in small and informal groups, such as La Boucane, which was probably initiated in 1893 by Hector Fabre, Canada's first general agent in Paris, and included sculptor Louis-Philippe Hébert and painter Henri Beau. Its members, predominantly French Canadians, were known to have frequented the Café Fleurus near the Luxembourg Gardens for a hearty meal and lively discussions. In addition, artists’ residences, and studios – like those of Caroline and Frank Armington at 8 rue de la Grande Chaumière or George and Mary Hiester Reid at 65 blvd. Arago, or later, Clarence Gagnon at 9 rue Falguière – became popular gathering places for Canadian expatriates and afforded opportunities for exchanging ideas and experiences.
By 1887, only a few years after the French Impressionist Claude Monet relocated to Giverny, the young artist William Blair Bruce became the only Canadian member of the newly established international art colony there. In Giverny, Bruce’s style would evolve to embrace a brighter palette and a heightened sensitivity to incorporating light in his rural scenes, as seen in his Landscape with Poppies.
Many Canadian artists also took advantage of expanded railway routes in the 1880s, easily accessing the French countryside or the new resort towns along the northwest coast of France, namely Brittany and Normandy, in pursuit of new locations to paint en plein air. Sites originally favoured by the French Impressionists – such as Fontainebleau, Barbizon and the art colonies of Pont Aven, Giverny, Grez-sur-Loing and Moret-sur-Loing – were gradually discovered by some of these artists. There, they sought out new surroundings that would allow them to accentuate their sensitivities by capturing the subject in ephemeral light and rapid changes in the atmosphere. Beyond the subject of pure landscape, the daily lives of the local habitants, bustling market scenes and busy fishing ports became part of their artistic vocabulary.
Moret, Winter, painted in Moret-sur-Loing in 1895, is a testament to Maurice Cullen’s ability early in his career to seize the crisp and fresh atmosphere of a cold winter’s day. Light breaks through the stillness of the frozen water surface and vibrant pink oscillates the reflections of light from one bank to the other. The composition is reminiscent of Monet’s series of works depicting thawing ice surging down the river.
By the second half of the 19th century, the French seaside offered new opportunities and introduced novel subjects – leisurely activities, everyday life at the water’s edge and display of fashionable dress. Indeed, these activities now added different sensations to the paintings of these Impressionists. Light was increasingly employed to distill the subject, suggesting a new way of looking at a scene, in a motif of repose or in movement.
The success of the first group of Canadians in France prompted a new generation of aspiring men and women artists to venture abroad by the early 1900s. This second wave included Clarence Gagnon, W.H. Clapp and Helen McNicoll. A former classmate of both Clapp and Gagnon in Brymner’s classes in Montreal, McNicoll quickly became a leading practitioner of the impressionistic style. The compositions of these young Impressionists became bolder, since the use of brighter tones was becoming the norm. Studying the transient qualities of light and using them as the prime subject of painting itself provoked these artists to go beyond the use of pure colour and to start experimenting with composite hues. Light was thus used to further transfix the subject, invoking a sense of relaxation or propulsion in motion. In McNicoll’s In the Tent, indirect light cascades onto the model’s figure and dress, creating an atmosphere of repose, while in Rozaire’s Nudes on the Beach direct light bounces off the figures, creating a feeling of elation.
The traditional subject of the female model, both clothed and nude, was now reinvented with an Impressionist sensibility. Even though women artists faced social and career limitations at home and abroad at the turn of the 20th century, there existed a great number of professional Canadian women Impressionists. As contemporary debates emerged about industrial progress, these artists began to reconsider the role and representation of the modern woman. Whether a woman was depicted passing time in domestic interiors or out-of-doors, her identity now offered a new perspective on her role.
Prior to the advent of Impressionism, the theme of childhood was a prominent subject in philosophical, social and literary discourse in Victorian England. Images of children gained a new appreciation in the works of the French Impressionists as the outdoors became a new platform for painting them. Canadian Impressionists, too, captured children in their liberated identities. Children were portrayed reading quietly or tending to younger siblings. Artists such as Laura Muntz in her painting The Pink Dress (1897) and Sophie Pemberton in Little Boy Blue (1897) excelled in the subject.
Canadian Impressionists ventured beyond France as early as the 1890s, taking trips to Italy, Spain and the Scandinavian countries. Venice had been a favourite location for many international artists for centuries, and Morrice, who in 1903 was the first artist to exhibit at the Biennale as a Canadian, painted a significant number of works in the city, transitioning from a Whistlerian fin-de-siècle approach to that of a robust modernist. In his painting Venice, The Golden Hour he captures familiar landmarks with the scrutiny and detachment of a modernist sensibility.
Colonial expansion facilitated travel and access to distant places for many European and North American artists. Painting scenes of everyday life and local inhabitants, artists such as Franklin Brownell engaged with the principal tenets of Impressionism: observing contemporary life and transposing their impressions of light and colour. However, their works also obscured the political realities of colonial occupation.
Returning home, painters such as Cullen and Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté shared the knowledge and experience gained abroad with their contemporaries and the Canadian public by exhibiting their work both at the Art Association of Montreal and at the Royal Canadian Academy. On home soil, Cullen and Suzor-Coté created a vernacular approach to Impressionism – an enduring movement inspired by Canada’s unique climate and topography. Preferring rural settings to urban life, both artists took their inspiration directly from nature. In harsh winter conditions, they recorded their impressions of snow and changing atmospheric conditions rapidly en plein air, imbuing their work with a touch of local character. That native touch would be later adopted by the younger followers of Impressionism, including Clapp, Gagnon and Robert Pilot.
Despite exhibition venues, media reviews and training – all great advantages that should have facilitated a profitable career at home – many of these Canadian artists nonetheless faced a difficult start. At the beginning of the First World War, they faced a period of rapid social, cultural and economic shift in the fabric of Canada. They continued to maintain their presence by submitting regularly to the annual exhibitions of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art, Art Association of Montreal, Ontario Society of Artists, Toronto Industrial Exhibition, and the Canadian Art Club, occasionally overcoming the criticism of a handful of knowledgeable art critics. As the Impressionist aesthetic began to wane, its style gave way to a new era in Canadian art with the formation in 1920 of two groups of modernist painters: Toronto’s Group of Seven and Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group. The rise of Post-Impressionism, Fauvism and Art Nouveau impacted the visual vocabularies of this generation of artists, giving birth to the first wave of modernism in the arts of Canada.
The members of the Group of Seven re-defined the landscape with images that eliminated superfluous topographical views of the land, through a modern lens. The Montreal-based artists of the Beaver Hall Group, on the other hand, examined the emergence of modernity through the lens of urban and suburban life in Quebec. The snow-covered streets of Montreal in the works of John Y. Johnstone and Joseph-Charles Franchère, or the ever-present cab-stand paintings of Kathleen Moir Morris continued to offer a glimpse of the rhythm of life in the city. In Toronto, artists such as Lawren S. Harris and J. E. H. MacDonald briefly turned their attention to the urban core by showing the impact on the changing city and contrasting the affluent life in certain urban quarters to those of the impoverished neighbourhoods. Although the appearance of both rural and urban subjects was not sudden in Canadian art, the varied range of Impressionist images generated a fresh chapter in Canadian settler art. The artists’ purpose was not to paint with borrowed techniques and styles but to create fresh responses that challenged the accepted norms of academic art.
Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons essentially points to a time and place in Canada when the principles of Impressionism took root in the minds of the country’s modern painters, who transformed images of human life and nature through the principles of Impressionism. The use of different motifs distilled an art form which is seen to be a symbol of a modernity in Canada.
Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons is on view at the National Gallery of Canada until 3 July 2022. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.