Isolation in War: James Wilson Morrice

James Wilson Morrice, War Scene, 1918. Oil and graphite on wood, 23.5 x 33 cm. Gift of G. Blair Laing, Toronto, 1989. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

James Wilson Morrice was one of Canada's foremost modernist painters. He had the unique ability to acknowledge his experience of life and in his paintings to distill a moment into that which is eternal. His remarkable talent was so pronounced that the leading French art critic Louis Vauxcelles noted in 1909 that, since James Abbott McNeill Whistler, Morrice was the first North American painter to have obtained a notable place in the international world of art.

Unlike most of his contemporary Canadian artists, Morrice decided to remain in Europe for much of his life. He spent most of the First World War in Paris or travelling around France, with a few trips to Canada and a serendipitous visit to the Caribbean in 1915. At the end of 1917, he joined the number of British and Canadian artists commissioned by Lord Beaverbrook and the Canadian War Records Office to document the war. Committed to recording the advancement of the Canadian troops in preparation for a large mural painting (now in the collection of the Canadian War Museum), he travelled to the front in February 1918 as a member of the Canadian Expeditionary Force. He sketched the destruction and the relative still of several French towns in the aftermath of the catastrophic battles.

The Canadian visited Vimy and other significant battle sites in eastern France. In War Scene (1918), Morrice used both graphite and a blunt object, possibly an inverted paintbrush, to draw on the wet paint surface, highlighting the lines of the composition in an expressive manner. This study, like others that grew out of this assignment, is informed by the technique and the heightened colour palette Morrice formed in the Caribbean three years earlier. The royal blue sky echoes the rich blues of his first Caribbean paintings. The solitary figure had become a favourite motif in his Parisian scenes, but in this context his depiction of an isolated soldier takes on a remoteness that conveys the distress and alienation of the war. The resulting effect is one of beauty among ruins, a universal portrayal of the aftermath of conflict.


James Wilson Morrice's War Scene and works by other Canadian artists from the war years are on view in A107a at the National Gallery of Canada. 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.​