At Peace Among the Mountains: "Distant Mountain" by J.E.H. MacDonald

J.E.H. MacDonald, Distant Mountain, 1928. Oil on canvas, 54 x 67 cm. Gift of Erika v. C. Bruce, Ottawa, 2018, in memory of Geoffrey F. Bruce. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

“If it is possible to make reservations in Heaven, I am going to have an upper berth somewhere in the O’Hara ranges of Paradise.” Written on September 4, 1928 as MacDonald enjoyed his fourth annual trip to the Rocky Mountains, the artist’s declaration reveals the feelings of peace and fulfilment he felt amongst the mountains in Yoho National Park in eastern British Columbia.

Just over a month later his recently completed painting, Distant Mountain appeared in a loan exhibition at the Edmonton Art Museum (now the Art Gallery of Alberta), the last of three exhibitions in which this work was exhibited within the artist’s lifetime. Now part of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada thanks to a generous donation, this magnificent painting is once again on view.

MacDonald’s fascination with the mountains began, like with many of his fellow Group of Seven artists, when he travelled west to the Rocky Mountains in August 1924. He returned annually until 1930, hiking and sketching in the area west of Banff, around Lake O’Hara and Lake Oesa. 

J.E.H. MacDonald, Cathedral Peak from Lake O'Hara, 1924. Oil on cardboard, 21.3 x 26.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

The distinct topography and monumentality of the Rocky Mountains challenged MacDonald artistically as he contended with the difficulties of capturing the vastness of the ranges and of properly doing justice to the scale of the mountains within the restricted space of his canvas. The artist’s approach was one that incorporated his earlier experiences as a commercial illustrator for Grip Printing & Publishing Company in Toronto, where he had worked for nearly a decade, from 1894 to 1903. The artist structured his compositions using simplified forms, flat surfaces and a restricted palette in order to minimize visual clutter and reduce his images to their essential parts, thus foregrounding the emotional impact of the landscape.

J.E.H. MacDonald, Mount Lefroy, 1932. Oil on canvas, 53.7 x 67.1 cm. Vincent Massey Bequest, 1968. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

MacDonald sometimes struggled, however, to translate the richness of his small wood panels, painted in situ, to his larger canvases produced later in his Toronto studio. The artist’s early biographer E.R. Hunter once wrote that the paintings tended to be “without actual light or atmosphere” resulting in “a perfectly flat pattern.” By 1928, however, MacDonald appears to have found a balance between creating simplified, straightforward compositions while still maintaining a “warmth of reality,” to quote Hunter. The lessons of the previous four years in the Rockies finally coalesce in Distant Mountain, which succeeds in conveying the stark atmosphere of the mountain-top through the daring design of the vast sky and the clear, sharp form of the eponymous peak.

The repetition and stylization of forms that we see in Distant Mountain was instrumental in allowing MacDonald to express nature’s monumental shapes and the spirit of the landscape without losing himself in the complex rhythms of peaks and valleys that characterize the western region. To convey an experience or emotional reaction in his art was paramount, taking precedence over a true representation of the scene. Fellow painter and Group of Seven member A.Y. Jackson, who also spent considerable time hiking and painting in the Rocky Mountains, echoed this sentiment in 1925, writing: “The artist has surrendered too completely to nature. A mighty mountain painted with photographic accuracy may be a very trifling affair as a work of art. The mere representation of nature is nowhere so ineffective as in paintings of the mountains.” In fact, Distant Mountain, painted in MacDonald’s studio in the winter of 1928, appears to be an original composition that presents a synthesis of different views he may have sketched the previous fall. The precise geographic location becomes irrelevant as the artist conveys an impression or abstracted idea of a mountain instead.

J.E.H. MacDonald, West by east and other poems, with illustration by Thoreau MacDonald. Toronto 1933. National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives Photo: NGC

MacDonald was consumed by the Rocky Mountains, a captivation that manifested itself not only in his paintings but also in his poetry, his teaching, his essays and his lectures. Created only four years before his death, Distant Mountain shows the artist at the height of his power, capable of capturing the complex shapes and ever-changing weather patterns of the mountains in an emotionally charged yet simplistic design.


J.E.H MacDonald's Distant Mountain is on view in A108 of the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of CanadaShare 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.

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