Emily Carr in Brittany: Moment of Artistic Breakthrough
We don’t always know exactly where an artist stood to paint a certain landscape, or if it is still possible to find the location today. Sometimes, however, an unexpected turn in a road or a vista revealed on a trail can lead to discovery. This is precisely what happened to me on a recent trip to Brittany, the most westerly region of France. Armed with images of Emily Carr's paintings, the intention was to retrace the Canadian artist's steps in Brittany, to walk and explore the places where she had spent time.
Emily Carr and her sister Alice (who spoke some French and acted as translator) left Victoria in the summer of 1910 and travelled across Canada on the Canadian Pacific Railroad, boarding an ocean liner to cross the Atlantic and landing at Liverpool. From there the sisters embarked for France. Emily’s intention was to immerse herself in the new modernist art. She wrote, “Everyone said Paris was the top of art and I wanted to get the best teaching I knew.” In France, at the Paris ateliers and in the countryside working en plein air she transitioned fully from the representational art that she both practised and taught. This was the art style she learned on previous international visits, first in San Francisco (1890–93) and later in England (1899–1904). Her British Columbia clientele appreciated her pleasant, realistic watercolours, but they would not, as it transpired, have the same thoughts about her newly acquired French style.
Carr's oil painting Autumn in France of 1911, one of Carr’s masterpieces now in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada and currently on tour in Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, was one of the works loaded onto my iPad holding archival photos and images of paintings. It represents most clearly her artistic breakthrough from a traditional to a modernist painter. The scene depicts a rocky headland with water glimpses beyond. The midground is delineated using bright pink, mauve, yellow, blue, green and orange, revealing what appears to be autumn foliage, poplar trees, hedgerows and golden, cultivated, enclosed fields. The foreground includes a small cluster of stone structures, certainly a farmhouse and outbuildings. Carr employed strong, confident brushstrokes and vibrant colours as she captured not so much the specific geographical details, but instead, what she experienced as the essence of what lay before her. She aimed to capture the vitality of the landscape and to portray what she felt internally. This was a radical change from her previous representational style and a change also in her own idea of what constituted artistic endeavour.
Where in France was Carr when she made this breakthrough? Her own writings reveal that she became seriously ill in Paris and had to flee the city to regain her health. Initially she worked on the outskirts, and then in early 1911 moved to the small medieval village of Crécy-en-Brie to study with "Harry Phelan” Gibb, an ex-patriot English artist whom she first met in Paris. It would be both Gibb and his wife Harriet (known as Bridget), whom Carr credited for patiently explaining, and providing her with the vocabulary to converse about, the new art.
After sister Alice’s return to Victoria in early summer, Emily moved with the Gibbs to Brittany where she resided in a modest beachfront hotel at the village of Saint Efflam, near the town of Plestin-les-Grèves, with its magnificent sandy tidal beach stretching out towards the English Channel. Later, after a productive summer, she ventured further south in Brittany to study with a different teacher, New Zealand artist Frances Mary Hodgkins, at the port town of Concarneau. With Hodgkins, Carr shifted mediums and worked in watercolours en plein air, drawing the streets and buildings, the female shop workers and the artisans in the walled medieval part of the town opposite her hotel. She also painted the distinctive sailboats in the harbour and scenes of market life.
Autumn in France was not painted in Concarneau, but was painted earlier, while working in oils with Gibb, in Saint Efflam. Curator Ian Thom, in his 1991 exhibition catalogue Emily Carr in France, wrote that it displays “confidence in the use of colour, the handling of space and the application of paint” and demonstrates the influence of Gibb who at that time was working in the Fauvist style. Its practitioners, then described as “the wild beasts” because their bright colours bore no relation to a realistic palette, employed wide, sweeping, “loose brushwork and flat, abstracted shapes.” aiming all the while to capture the vitality of space and form, rather than a realistic depiction.
So, where to look in Saint Efflam for the view captured in Autumn in France? In her autobiography Carr wrote that she “tramped the country-side, sketch-sack on shoulder." Assuming she walked from her hotel, I started the detective work there. Behind the remaining hotel buildings lies a steep embankment. Today there is a walking trail at the top, but in 1911 this trail had tracks as it was a small railway line connecting the local villages.
Along this trail a trestle and sidings are still in place. Occasional overgrown and dilapidated remnants of roadways lead to ancient farmhouses or intersect with cart bridges over the rail line. Scrambling up through the bush above the old track, one is met by a network of fields, some still operational and some fallow. Overgrown hedgerows separate fields and there are many more large, deciduous trees than would have been present in 1911. It is not easy to get a handle on the landscape as the roads are few, the private properties interrupt access, and the vegetation is overgrown and restrictive of vistas.
Travelling the road in one direction and then another, a hill becomes visible in the distance. Occasionally the ocean can be glimpsed from a particular turn. Suddenly a fortuitous opening in the trees reveals a familiar outline in the distance, this is surely the same hill in Autumn in France with its distinctive saddle between two rounded rock forms, and the very same exposed headland facing the ocean, but the angle here isn’t quite right. A few hundred metres down the road, the hill’s profile, the interface between the ocean and the distant shoreline match more clearly. Unfortunately there are too many trees and too many private lands interrupting the sight lines to find Carr’s exact spot, but taking a photograph and matching it to the painting is uncontestable. This is the scene Carr painted and thus confirms her presence. A map provides the name of the headland, Le Grand Rocher – the big rock – which, from the waterside is an imposing sight. Today a road leading to the next town, Saint Michel-en-Grève skirts its edge, as did the small railway in 1911.
We now have the undisputed location for Autumn in France, and the name of the hill Carr depicted. It is a small, yet important footnote for Carr’s France chronology. This is just one of several paintings that now have specific geographical locations assigned, in some cases allowing corrective attributions to previous titles. More detective work remains to be completed for other Carr works painted in Brittany.
Paintings by Emily Carr are on view in A105 and A108 at the National Gallery of Canada. Information on French paintings by Emily Carr is contained in the new publication which accompanies the exhibition Emily Carr Fresh Seeing: Modernism and the West Coast on view at the Audain Art Museum, Whistler (until 19 January 2020) and at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton (1 March – May 31, 2020). Carr's Autumn in France is currently on view in the touring exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, currently on view at Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne (January 24 to May 24, 2020) 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.