James Wilson Morrice: A Gift of a Lifetime’s Work
James Wilson Morrice, The Pink House, Montreal (also The Old House, Montreal) [c. 1905–08], oil on canvas. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. NGC, Ottawa
It may be one of the most significant gifts in the history of the National Gallery of Canada: a collection of 50 works by a celebrated name in Canadian art history, James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924).
The benefactor, Ash Prakash, is a renowned author and collector of Canadian art, as well as a Distinguished Patron of the Gallery and a Director on the Board of Directors of the NGC Foundation.
“It became very clear to us that Mr. Prakash cared deeply about how the donation of his Morrice collection, perhaps the last large collection of works by this artist in private hands, was to be used in programs and research,” Karen Colby-Stothart, CEO of the NGC Foundation, told NGC Magazine. “He is a collector who is absolutely passionate about this artist and has been collecting Morrice for four decades.”
James Wilson Morrice, Girl in a Chair (c. 1900), oil on canvas. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. NGC, Ottawa
Born in Montreal in 1865, Morrice ventured to Paris in 1890 with the intention of pursuing a career as an artist. Unlike most of his compatriots who stayed only for the duration of their artistic training or for a sketching trip, Morrice chose to settle permanently in the city. He became the very first – and only – Canadian artist to sustain a viable career of international stature in what was, at that time, the capital of the art world. Although he didn’t speak French when he arrived, he soon integrated himself in Parisian artistic circles and established a phenomenal career. He was invited to show at the salons with all the big names, exhibiting next to the likes of Monet and Matisse.
This was an important period of time in Paris in terms of Modernist approaches to art. “You not only have Impressionism, you have Post-impressionism, Fauvism, and so on. Morrice is aware of all that, but his ability to carve his own style means you cannot define him with one word – he stands apart,” said Katerina Atanassova, Senior Curator of Canadian Art at the NGC.
Morrice was not only an artistic force in Paris; he had a significant impact in Canada, influencing two or three generations of Canadian artists. He gave them a vision of art as a mirror to life itself. “One of the most important elements of his art was the ability to draw the viewer in with the essential and to abbreviate a vision of the landscape and life around him. It’s almost a cerebral experience, as opposed to a visual one,” says Atanassova.
James Wilson Morrice, Fruit Market, North Africa (c. 1911), oil on panel. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. NGC, Ottawa
The timing of the donation is in honour of the 150th anniversary of Morrice’s birth, and it will play a pivotal role in the rehanging of the Canadian galleries for the country’s sesquicentennial in 2017. The collection is valued at $20 million, according to Gallery sources.
Colby-Stothart says that the gallery is also in the planning stages of a retrospective of Morrice’s work to take to major galleries in other countries, as well as a possible collaboration with the Canadian Conservation Institute. “When you have the largest collection in the world of James Wilson Morrice, it transforms your research capacity. We now have a very representative body of work, both stylistically and technically, giving us enormous potential to do a major survey.”
The gift adds 50 works, including large-scale panels, a range of mid-size and small pochades, five watercolours and a sketchbook, to the existing 138 Morrice works already in the NGC collection. These include not just his paintings in Paris, Normandy and Brittany, but also in Italy, North Africa, the West Indies and, of course, Canada – all places in which he painted. Some of the new masterpieces include Le Jardin du Luxembourg, Paris (1905–1908); Havre (1909); and Canal in Venice (c.1898–1900).
James Wilson Morrice, Canal in Venice (c. 1898–1900), oil on canvas. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. NGC, Ottawa
“We’re fortunate in Canada that we have this exceptional community of philanthropists who care very deeply about building the National Gallery’s collection,” says Colby-Stothart. One of the ways the NGC is able to properly recognize their contributions is through a naming program, and so, to honour his commitment to art, one of the Canadian historical galleries in the permanent collection will be renamed the Ash K. Prakash Gallery.
“This has been an incredible collaboration in developing our national collection for future generations, keeping it both relevant and dynamic,” says Colby-Stothart. “This gift will help us tell the story of James Wilson Morrice to Canadians and to the world.”
Selections from this historic donation are currently on view in the Ash K. Prakash Gallery in the NGC's Canadian gallery spaces.