Maurice Cullen, detail of The Ice Harvest, c. 1913. Oil on canvas, 76.3 × 102.4 cm. Purchased 1913. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

Reflections and Interpretations: Canadian artists from Impressionism to Modernism

The exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons reveals the untold story of the Canadian Impressionists, who followed in the footsteps of the French masters. It traces the work of artists who studied and worked in Paris, and then went on to develop “new and varied forms of Impressionism inspired by the incomparable light and landscapes of North America.” For the show’s curator, Katerina Atanassova of the National Gallery of Canada, the exhibition "challenges the monolithic notion of Impressionism which is wedded to the art of the French Impressionists." She describes the role of Canadian artists working in France in the years around 1900 as “a missing chapter in the global history of Impressionism.”

Organized by the National Gallery of Canada and opening at the Kunsthalle München this month – before moving to Lausanne, Montpellier and Ottawa – the exhibition includes 119 paintings by 36 Canadian artists, dating from 1880 to 1930. Few names, if any, will be familiar to European gallery-goers, but that is part of the point. Atanassova is setting out to rescue and rehabilitate artists who have rather fallen out of favour, certainly internationally, but who played a major role in the development of Canadian painting. Although many of the leading individual artists are justly recognized in Canada, the overall contribution of the Canadian Impressionists “has not been adequately contextualized”, she says.

William Blair Bruce, Landscape with Poppies, 1887. Oil on canvas, 27.3 x 33.8 cm. Purchased with assistance from Wintario, 1977. Art Gallery of Ontario.

William Blair Bruce is often described as the first Canadian Impressionist. After his arrival in France, he moved in May 1887 to Giverny, where Claude Monet had settled four years earlier. There he worked alongside six American artists, led by Theodore Robinson, who had all come seeking inspiration from the landscape and the Impressionist master. Little evidence survives of Bruce’s links with Monet, other than a short note on a visitor’s card from Alice Hoschedé, Monet’s companion and future wife. Bruce worked outdoors in Giverny, embracing Impressionism and capturing the effects of light in his rural scenes. Among his works showing the closest affinity with Monet is Landscape with Poppies, with its dense patch of poppies set against a deep green field and a harvest scene in the background.

The accolade of being the first Canadian Impressionist arguably should go to Frances Jones, who exhibited Le jardin d’hiver (In the Conservatory) in the Paris Salon in 1883. She must have been inspired by a major picture with the same title, painted four years earlier by Édouard Manet, and her painting was one of the first works depicting a Canadian subject to be shown at the Salon.

Clarence Gagnon, Summer Breeze at Dinard , 1907. Oil on canvas, 54 × 81 cm. Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec Collection, Purchase. Restoration by the Centre de conservation du Québec (1937.01)

The majority of Canadian artists in France were based in Paris where they were studying, but many also travelled, visiting the ports of Brittany (including the popular artists’ colony of Pont-Aven slightly inland) and Normandy. Several artists, such as William Brymner and William Blair Bruce, travelled south of the capital to the Barbizon forest. Two leading Canadian Impressionists made the pilgrimage to the nearby town of Moret-sur-Loing, which was favoured by Sisley, Renoir and Monet. Ernest Lawson met Sisley there in 1893, an encounter which encouraged the Canadian to depict the variations of colour and light in different seasons, in pictures such as Canal Scene in Winter. Accustomed to employing light as a veil rather than as a tool to illuminate objects, Lawson’s gentle brushwork and pale colours were then replaced by more insistent strokes and bolder hues. Maurice Cullen had trained in Montreal and enrolled to study painting with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Elie Delaunay at the École des Beaux-Arts in 1889. He was in Moret in 1895, two years after Lawson. Atanassova points out that his Moret, Winter, painted just before his return to Canada, represents "a testament to Cullen’s ability early in his career to capture the crisp and fresh atmosphere of a cold winter day."

Maurice Cullen, Moret, Winter, 1895. Oil on canvas, 59.7 × 92.1 cm. Gift from J.S. McLean, Canadian Fund, 1957. Art Gallery of Ontario.

Among other notable Canadian artists in France was James Wilson Morrice, who came in 1890 and ended up being based in Paris for nearly 35 years. During this period he witnessed the development of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Fauvism – and Cubism (which he disliked). Morrice also developed a friendship with Henri Matisse and sketched with him in Tangiers in 1911–12. He was among a small group of Canadian artists to capture the urban aspects of life in Paris, including cafés, street scenes and the Grands Boulevards.

James Wilson Morrice, Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, c. 1905. Oil on canvas, 73 × 60.5 cm. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Taking the lead from the French Impressionists, particularly Monet, Renoir, Sisley, Berthe Morisot and Camille Pissarro, the Canadians soon forged their own approach. Although a few, like Morrice, remained behind in Paris, most eventually returned home, developing fresh and varied approaches to painting. Unlike the French artists, who also painted urban scenes, the Canadians tended to concentrate on landscapes. This is hardly surprising, given the huge and varied countryside of their homeland that offered limitless inspiration. Landscape became their forte. One element that marks out the Canadian Impressionists is their greater emphasis on winter scenes, particularly snow-clad landscapes, where they proved adept at capturing the sparkling effect of sunlight on snow. While many of them chose to work outdoors, even in the harsh Canadian winter when conditions were particularly challenging, other artists preferred to complete their canvases in the studio, working from plein-air sketches or drawings.

Maurice Cullen, The Ice Harvest, c. 1913. Oil on canvas, 76.3 × 102.4 cm. Purchased 1913. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

Although the Impressionists from Canada may now be partly forgotten, their major contributions included paving the way for the artists who followed. They were an inspiration for the Group of Seven (Toronto) and the Beaver Hall Group (Montreal), which were both formed in 1920, and whose works strikingly demonstrate how Canadian art was to evolve. It was the paintings of that earlier generation, however, that show according to Atanassova "where and when the Canadian Impressionists converged with, and diverged from, their European or American counterparts to produce a variant of modernity that encapsulated the spirit of a young society in a new country. "


Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons opens at the Kunsthalle München on July 19 (until November 17, 2019), and will then travel to Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne (January 24 to May 24, 2020) and Musée Fabre, Montpellier (June 13 to September 27, 2020). It will be shown at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa from fall 2020.

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