A.Y. Jackson in Europe: A Brush with Impressionism
Canadian art at the turn of the 20th century was defined by the pilgrimage of aspiring young painters to the venerable art schools of Europe. When combined with extensive travels, these sojourns were an essential step for all artists wishing to be recognized as professional, established artists. Their travels coincided with the rise and proliferation of Impressionism in France and beyond, a movement that encouraged artists to focus on their immediate surroundings and experiences. From 1905 to 1913, the Montreal-born painter A.Y. Jackson (1882–1974) undertook three such trips to Europe in order to witness Impressionism first hand.
Jackson’s first trip abroad followed his formative training under William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal. Brymner's teaching and the exposure to the Impressionist works of an earlier generation of Canadian painters – namely Maurice Cullen, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté and James Wilson Morrice – reinforced Jackson’s desire to travel abroad. As a result, in the summer of 1905 Jackson earned free passage by working as a labourer on a cross-Atlantic cattle ship. After brief visits to London, Paris and the World’s Fair in Liège, he travelled back to Canada determined to return to Europe as soon as possible.
Jackson’s second trip, from 1907 to 1909, saw him partake in a rite of passage necessary for all aspiring artists, regardless of their country of origin: professional training at one of the many private Parisian ateliers. The artist’s desire to study in Paris was rooted in a 1905 visit to the Montparnasse apartment of Clarence Gagnon, W.H. Clapp and Henri Hébert, three fellow Canadian artists and students at the Académie Julian, and no doubt also due to the encouragement of Brymner. Jackson enrolled at the Académie in September 1907, but deferred further studies in favour of an ambitious tour of Europe after only one semester. His itinerary included stops across France, Italy, Belgium and the Netherlands. Most of this trip, however, was spent at Étaples, where he mastered the Impressionist technique of capturing the changing effects of natural light. He also had one painting accepted at the Paris Salon, a prestigious marker of status and success for any artist.
Returning home in the fall of 1909, Jackson began to apply Impressionist techniques to his scenes of Canada. While working as a graphic designer, a position he accepted in order to finance another trip to Europe, Jackson journeyed around Quebec and painted works that merged the tenets of Impressionism with uniquely Canadian subjects. Jackson himself recalled the experience of painting in Quebec: “After the soft atmosphere of France, the clear crisp air and sharp shadows of my native country in the spring were exciting.”
Two years later, the artist travelled once again to Europe. After extensive travels across France and Italy for over a year, Jackson arrived in Assisi on 25 October 1912 and spent several weeks sketching the ancient city and the surrounding hillsides. He painted no less than eight large-scale scenes of Assisi, the largest surviving body of work from his travels in Europe. In his autobiography he would later recount: “This old hill town, with the famous monastery … is a glorious place to paint. My English friends had rented a house with a studio where I worked. I not only painted all day but on moonlight [sic] nights at well.” Jackson’s canvases of Assisi are characterized by broad brushstrokes and saturated colour palettes influenced in part by French Impressionism.
Jackson returned to Montreal in early 1913. The culmination of his European training and travels, combined with his exposure to the avant-garde, promised a successful career at home. The art market in Montreal, however, favoured dark Dutch landscapes over Impressionist works – French or otherwise. As Jackson described: “I sailed home with a lot of canvases which no one wanted … few people liked the work I brought home from Europe. The French Impressionist influence in it was regarded as extreme modernism.”
In the following years Jackson exhibited his canvases of Assisi extensively, including Cypress Trees, Assisi and Autumn in Assisi at the Ontario Society of Artists annual exhibition in 1914. He even offered to swap a work already in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada for an Assisi canvas that had previously made the critic Samuel Morgan-Powell “froth at the mouth.” Jackson’s offer reveals his hard-won awareness of the limited market for modern Canadian art. Paradoxically, Impressionism had become part of the mainstream in France at this time, but had not yet been assimilated into the Canadian canon; work that was acceptable by Parisian standards, such as Jackson’s Assisi scenes, were disparaged by many in Canada.
For years Jackson’s Impressionistic paintings of home and abroad would often be exhibited alongside works by those Canadian artists who had first kindled his desire to travel internationally. Together, these artists would come to represent a divergent narrative. One was the older, first generation of artists who would remain faithful to the precepts of French Impressionism, albeit adapted to the unique characteristics of Canada. The second, including Jackson, was a younger generation who would use Impressionism as a springboard toward further artistic development. Their travel and study in Europe, as well as exposure to new ideas and movements, incited a desire to develop a modern style of painting that was unique to, and of, Canada.
A.Y.Jackson's paintings from this period are on view in Galleries A105 and A106 at the National Gallery of Canada. The journeys of Jackson and his fellow Canadian painters are charted in Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, currently on view at the Kunsthalle Munich (until November 17) and opening at the NGC in the fall of 2020. 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.