Life in Saint John: Miller Brittain and a portrait of the people

Miller Brittain, The Rummage Sale, 1940. Oil on masonite, 63.5 x 50.9 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

On Canada's east coast, the Christmas rummage sale was a seasonal feast for the senses — the bustle of bargain seekers, the chatter of adults and children, the dignified dust of old books and the mild mustiness of old clothes, and all those tables of home-baked treats with cinnamon and ginger and gaudy red and green icing. Was it the sugar that so wound up the kids, or was it the usually illicit experience of being in a church without having to pray, kneel and — best of all — be quiet?

Miller Brittain’s painting The Rummage Sale may have been at Christmas; the clothing worn by his figures at least shows it was a cooler time of year in Brittain’s home town of Saint John, New Brunswick. At any time of year poverty was endemic, and thrift was the rule for most. A rummage sale — sometimes called a bazaar — was a chance to squeeze a few more pennies out of a dollar, and it was these working-class people who needed the squeeze that were Brittain’s muse.

Miller Brittain, Kjeld Deichmann and Jack Humphrey (from L to R) at the Kingston Peninsula, New Brunswisk, c.1937. Photographer unknown. Jack Humphrey fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives, Ottawa

Brittain was born on November 12, 1912 in Saint John when it was a hardscrabble port city and yet a welcoming place for artists. Showing his talent early, he moved aged 17 to New York to study at the Art Students League. There he was immersed in the debate between “conservative academicians” and modernists, and “the principles of both sides became an important part of his education,” stated Tom Smart in the catalogue Miller Brittain: When the Stars Threw Down Their Spears that accompanied the 2007–09 touring exhibition created by the Beaverbrook Art Gallery and also shown at the National Gallery of Canada. 

Miller Brittain, Boarding the Street Car, c.1941. Graphite on wove paper, 27.3 x 21.5 cm. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

When Brittain returned to Saint John during the Great Depression, “art and poetry were at the core of [his] sensibility,” Smart commented. His skill as a draughtsman and the sincerity of his desire to accurately represent the proud ruggedness of the people are recorded in Alex Mogelon’s 1981 book, Miller Brittain in Focus, where an excited young Brittain recounts how a stranger had purchased a drawing and told him, “You’ve sure caught his character, Mr. Brittain. With just a few strokes you’ve got the blood and guts of the man . . .” By the end of the 1930s he had a growing reputation, was showing regularly in group exhibitions and “really hit his stride as a painter,” stated Charles Hill, former curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery, "he was showing his empathy for humanity, and for urban life.”

Miller Brittain, Longshoremen, 1940. Oil on masonite, 50.8 x 63.4 cm National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo: NGC

That stride and sensitivity power The Rummage Sale and The Longshoremen, both painted in 1940. Hanging side by side in the Gallery, they are sterling examples of his artistic vision. The artist portrays the people and their city not as pitiful but as strong and spirited. In both works, figures crowd the frames boisterously and amiably. Some figures are cut off at the frames’ edges, creating a sense of something beyond. In The Rummage Sale, women and children push to grab the best bargains. In The Longshoremen, men bunch together, smoking, talking, arguing, being a brotherhood. The colours in both paintings are plain and muted, as the long-worn clothing of the working people would have been. The people make much of what little they have, as does Brittain with his restrained palette. 

There has been much discussion about where Brittain’s pre-war scenes of Saint John fall, whether they illustrate sympathy or satire. The artist himself stated in a public lecture at the New Brunswick Museum in 1949 (cited in Tom Smart's 2007 catalogue): "I concerned myself in expressing in pictures what presented itself to my eye. The means at the disposal of an artist are line, mass, and colour, and it was my task to manipulate these within a given space in as stimulating a manner as was possible for me." With the Second World War and the premature loss of his wife, Brittain's art would plunge into darkness, reflecting his changed perspective – looking no longer outward, but inward, captured by the demons in his own head. And yet, by the time he died in 1968, he appeared to have recovered some peace of mind. The artist, perhaps, had discovered the strength to survive, like those other hardy “Johners” who worked the Saint John docks, and scoured the church basement for bargains. 


Miller Brittain's The Rummage Sale and The Longshoremen are on view in A109 in the National Gallery of Canada's Canadian and Indigenous Galleries. 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.

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