Growing the Collection of Historical Canadian Art: The Koffler Donation
The noble pursuit of art collecting is as much a story about the collectors as it is about the artists and their art. Murray and Marvelle Koffler nurtured a deep affection for the arts in Canada, a reflection of their love for the country. The generous donation of five important paintings from their Estate – by Tom Thomson, Lawren S. Harris, Emily Carr and Marc-Aurèle Fortin – to the National Gallery of Canada's collection of later Canadian art is now on view in the Indigenous and Canadian galleries.
The dates of the paintings in the Koffler gift fall between 1912 and 1942, and mark a period closely associated with the flourishing of the Canadian school of landscape painting. They constitute a great addition to the holdings of the national collection. The earliest work is Tom Thomson's sketch Northern Lake of c.1912, emblematic of his explorations of Algonquin Park which was a subject that fascinated him until his untimely death in 1917. Similarly, Lawren S. Harris’ Northern Lake II, painted in 1926, is the summa of his achievements in crafting a modernist vision of the tranquility and splendour of nature in Canada. The two forest paintings by Emily Carr of the 1930s act as a counterblast to the conventionalized tradition of naturalism, while Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s painting Saint Urbain in Winter celebrates the quiet, rural life in Quebec, evoking the effect of time on the human condition.
To understand the formidable power of Tom Thomson’s outdoor sketches, one must not only examine the chosen scenery but be equally aware of all the elements in the painting. The most important of these are colour, texture and unity of composition. Self-taught and intuitive, Thomson’s response to the splendour of the Ontario landscape is authentic and fresh. Building upon his skills as a graphic designer, he developed a distinct vision of his surroundings as the source of all creativity. The portrayal of mass, surface and line all embodied the patterning in nature. Being outdoors inspired his passionate search for creating faithful art that was symbolic of life, with nature as a companion.
The imagery of the changing seasons in Algonquin Park emerged in Thomson’s own personal vocabulary rapidly. Transcending purely decorative effects, he renders the sky and water in Northern Lake in a series of broad horizontal bands. The strict, almost geometric division reflects his early experiments and unconventional treatment of the landscape to create his compositional structure. Thomson converts the immediate experience of the natural world into an abstract synthesis of peace and tranquility. What sets him apart from all his contemporaries is this palpable sense of the land and a profound awareness of its beauty. His response to atmospheric changes is unique. Thomson’s command of unity in composition evokes a romanticized view of the landscape.
Soon after the first Group of Seven exhibition in 1920, Lawren S. Harris' search for a modern vision of landscape painting reached a crisis point. He rejected the limitations of the natural vision in favour of transposing it into a symbol of Canada's northern landscape. Northern Lake II, painted in 1926, exemplifies his modernist rendering of the scenery, not dissimilar to the Thomson sketch. The unity of the composition is an extension of the theosophical ideal Harris had adopted by then, which was projected into the land – like an immobile effigy of a conviction that all the torrent forces of the world cannot destroy. With no reference to historical or human content, he imbues the composition with iconic characteristics that separate him from the rest of his contemporaries.
First exhibited in the 1928 Group of Seven exhibition, the painting remained in the artist's possession until 1934. It hung in the living room of his Toronto house on Ava Road, where it was photographed for an article in the June 1928 issue of Canadian Homes and Gardens.
An earlier version of the same composition was painted around 1923 and was acquired by R.S. McLaughlin. It was later donated to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Both paintings demonstrate the artist’s drive for experimentation in painting during this period. The clear, crisp autumn air inspired something special: the ethereal light, the brooding forest in the distant hills, and the still water of the lake skilfully framed between the stylized tree branches are all signature elements in Harris’ Algoma paintings. Commenting on their travels in this region, A.Y. Jackson, Harris’ regular painting companion, described that deep connection between subject and vision: “I know of no more impressive scenery in Canada for the landscape painter. There is a sublime order to it…”
On the other side of the continent, Emily Carr rebelled against the puritanical attitudes of her English heritage, and was passionate about her native British Columbia from an early age. The unconstrained, non-traditional expression of her art resulted in images that capture the true spirit of nature as she perceived it, unsurpassed in Canadian painting. Living alone, always drifting towards solitude, she infused a sense of isolation into her work that is expressed through the energy of the forest.
Discrete and introverted like Thomson and Harris, Carr conscientiously sought seclusion in remote areas, preferring to paint the mood and spirit of the forest and capturing it as the cycle of life, death and resurgence. With her innate sensitivity to the surrounding world, she endeavoured to express the force of nature as she experienced it. Her 1937 painting Something Unnamed encapsulates that spirit, as a symbol of the destiny of humanity. Energy is celebrated as the ultimate source of life. In Forest Interior in Shafts of Light, c.1935–37, the natural light floods the forest floor, providing nourishing life to the trees. The composition is bathed in an atmosphere that is at once tranquil and melancholic, offering the viewer refuge from the burdens of modern life.
Regional distinctiveness and a modern approach to painting are also at the core of Marc-Aurèle Fortin's artistic œuvre. Considered Quebec’s foremost landscape painter, he had a deep-rooted reverence for his native province and worked in isolation for much of his career. His views of country houses like Saint Urbain in Winter were painted under the light of different seasons and often carried some autobiographical references. As a statement of the human condition, they dealt with the inevitable passage of time. Saint Urbain in Winter conveys celebration of everyday life in the countryside, patriotic and deeply nostalgic.
It is indeed this modern attitude in his paintings that separates Fortin from his contemporaries. Technically proficient and highly creative, he employed a remarkable harmony of colour that resonated like music, making him a master of his own poetic vision of painting. His scenes of Quebec can be seen as psychological fragments of his own experiences.
The Koffler donation is a tribute to the collectors’ commitment to both philanthropy and the preservation of our cultural heritage. These newly acquired five paintings will not only enrich the national collection but will also help us explain how 20th-century Canadian artists adapted to their local experiences in their exploration of regional subject matter.
All five paintings are currently on view in Room A108 of 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.