Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons - Audio tour
In association with the exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, explore what’s in store through this virtual audio tour.
Featuring fourteen of the works on view, this engaging overview introduces Canadian artists who travelled to Europe at the turn of the 20th century to further their education. When they returned home, they brought new techniques and ideas with them, changing the face of Canadian art forever.
Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons
We would like to begin by acknowledging that the land on which the National Gallery of Canada is situated is the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabeg people.
Welcome to the exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons. The selected works in the galleries are organized thematically, and they will provide you with an opportunity to explore a wide range of visual expressions and, at the same time, discover the Canadian artists who travelled to Europe at the turn of the 20th century to further their artistic education and steep themselves in the philosophy of the Impressionist movement and other modern currents.
The exhibition also highlights the contribution of these artists to the Impressionist movement and the modernity of their legacy to Canadian art. It further explores the social, political and cultural climates that informed their work.
Please note that the exhibition is in two parts, continuing in Gallery C218, which is on the same floor near the grand staircase and the glass elevator.
Border of the Forest of Fontainebleau, 1885
A screen of trees, dead leaves under them, a grey sky and village, and some fields seen through them. The subject is so full of detail by way of tree branches that it’s very tedious to work out… The only thing is that there may not be enough of effect about it. The whole thing is (in nature) extremely delicate in colour.
When he wrote these words in a letter to his father in 1885, Brymner was working on this painting. Seven years prior, he had traveled to Paris to study architecture, and had enrolled in the Académie Julian, also taking anatomy lessons at the École des beaux-arts, where the teachers were very traditional. Brymner then joined a group of young naturalist painters, followers of the Barbizon School and Jean-François Millet. Looking for picturesque subjects and natural effects, he took trips with his companions to paint bucolic scenes in the French and Belgian countryside.
In 1885, Brymner spent time in Brolles in the Forest of Fontainebleau, where he produced this painting in the winter. The work illustrates the ways in which he adhered to the principles of the Barbizon School: muted, dark tones, direct observation of nature combined with an attempt to reproduce the sensory atmosphere. The work was accepted at the Salon, securing Brymner’s reputation as a painter in France.
Luxembourg Gardens, Paris, 1890
The Luxembourg Gardens, Paris II, 1890
Paul Peel painted these two studies on site at the Luxembourg Gardens. Both works feature trees, a terrace with a stone balustrade and a few figures, added to animate the scene. But Peel chose to vary his perspective and the time of day to explore the play of light and atmospheric effects, favourite aesthetic preoccupations of the French Impressionists.
The Luxembourg Gardens and Palace were designed in the early 17th century at the behest of the widowed Queen, Marie de’ Medici, regent to Louis XIII. The Queen wanted to get away from the noisy, insalubrious Louvre district. The palace would become the residence of members of the royal family for the following 160 years, and its gardens would be a favourite place for the aristocracy – and, eventually, the bourgeoisie – to go for walks.
In 1793, after the Revolution, the Luxembourg Palace became a prison. The only visitors to the gardens, now left untended, were the families of prisoners hoping to see their loved ones. During the siege of Paris in 1870 and during the Franco-Prussian War, the Palace was used as a hospital and the French army set up an artillery battery in the gardens, where wounded soldiers evacuated from the front were also housed in hastily constructed buildings.
It is difficult to imagine that such bloody events took place in the Luxembourg Gardens as we contemplate the calm, luminous atmosphere in these two studies. Instead, they bring to mind – to paraphrase Guy de Maupassant: … a forgotten garden of the last century … a place to dream, to listen to the life of Paris around us, and to enjoy the infinite repose of these old-fashioned hedges.
Autumn in France, 1911
I was saving to go to Paris … I wanted … to find out what this ‘New Art’ was about … I saw at once that it made recent conservative painting look flavourless, little, unconvincing.
In British Columbia, Emily Carr grew up in a Victorian society that relegated women to a submissive role. The independent, rebellious Carr refused. She went to study in Paris, where she rejected subjects considered to be “suitable” for female artists and instead turned toward Fauvism: its innovative techniques were better suited to the artistic vision she had chosen to develop. Many contemporary critics would characterize her work as “manly” because of her avant-garde style.
For Carr, an artist’s task is not to reproduce nature the way a camera can, but to create shapes and use colours that express the intensity of emotion felt in front of nature. In her painting of the hills of Saint-Efflam, in Brittany, she tried to create a unified structural whole, rather than individual elements – trees, fields, mountain, sky – thus producing a work that calls forth aesthetic emotions “independent of time and space,” and a new vision of nature.
The Studio, 1903
Florence Carlyle specialized in portraits of women, often taking female friends or family members as her models. In this one, an elegant young woman, maybe Carlyle’s female companion, seems to have dozed off while reading.
Like many of her female contemporaries, Carlyle was sensitive to the issue of women’s emancipation. Though the pose she chose is typical of the representation of the nude, her model is fully clothed, and there is nothing to suggest she is meant to seduce the viewer, male or female. Carlyle also put a copy of the London art magazine The Studio in her right hand, perhaps to indicate her intellectual and professional ambitions.
The diagonal composition, with the model occupying most of the space, is powerfully modern. And the kimono is typical of the taste for Japanese art shared by Canadian and European Impressionist artists. It allowed Carlyle to explore the patterns of light in richly textured and coloured textiles, creating chromatic harmonies with other elements of the decor.
Shown at the annual exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1903, the work would later be renamed Reverie.
The Chintz Sofa, c. 1913
A young woman dressed in white is engaged in sewing, comfortably seated on a sofa with a floral pattern. Helen McNicoll seems to have painted a typical representation of feminine calm and a reassuring symbol of the late 19th century social order.
But a feminist interpretation puts this work in the context of women’s suffrage, which, at the beginning of the 20th century, was dividing England, where McNicoll was living.
In the period when she produced this painting, like many women artists McNicoll had to fight for access to the same opportunities as men, both socially and artistically. This was one of the reasons she enrolled at the Slade School of Fine Art in London in 1902. Not only did that school promote modernism, but it also had a reputation for its egalitarian approach to art education. McNicoll also became a member of the Society of Women Artists in London. Such associations provided women artists with a strong patronage network and professional support not offered by traditional European institutions.
McNicoll shared a studio in London with her close friend, the artist Dorothea Sharp, who was no doubt the model for this painting. This kind of relationship was common in the period. It allowed professional women to live independently outside the bonds of marriage without risking the disapproval of a conservative, patriarchal society.
H. Mabel May
Knitting, c. 1915
Henriette Mabel May sought to transcend the traditional depictions of feminine subjects considered to be appropriate for female artists at the time. Although she made a specialty of scenes of women at work or in their leisure activities, here, she chooses to show them outdoors. This scene depicts a group of women knitting together next to the water, under the leafy shade of a tree. It is possible that the knitting was for soldiers at the front, and that this scene is less bucolic than it appears at first glance.
The brushstrokes are free, almost pointillistic, and the colour palette is soft and luminous. The black, bow-bedecked shoe of the woman in the foreground, and the white cotton dresses, highly fashionable at the time, indicate the social status of these urban women. We are far from the toil of the working-class women in military industries that the artist would depict shortly after this to illustrate the important role they played in the war effort.
But we do see the same desire to increase the visibility of the new woman. The women’s emancipation movement was strong in Canada, where a National Council of Women was formed in 1893.
This painting was shown at the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. A critic commented:
May … has shown her power of expressing animated groups and vivid sunlight. The Royal Canadian Academy were wise in electing to associate membership this clever young lady.
Note the word “associate,” which reminds us that apart from the artist Charlotte Schreiber, women artists in this period could not aspire to full membership in the Academy.
Tea Time, 1901
Dressed in a silk kimono, Franklin Brownell’s wife, Louise Nickerson, is about to raise a delicate porcelain cup to her lips. The background is decorated with a scene showing Japanese women in a stylized garden. A teapot and a few flowers sit on a side table next to her. Are we in Japan?
After the forced reopening of Japanese ports to western trade under pressure by the U.S. government in 1853, European markets were soon inundated with Japanese products and ukiyo-e prints (images of the “floating world”). In the wake of the international exhibitions held in Paris and London in the 1870s, Europeans developed a craze for all things Japanese. Japanese art, which is free from the constraints of perspective, inspired artists including the Impressionists to reject the conventions of western academic art, replacing them with their own conception of dynamic space and concentrating on colours.
Mary A. Bell
In the Orchard, c. 1895
Mary Bell often featured childhood and motherhood in her works. Taking inspiration from the Impressionists – including Mary Cassatt and her use of flattened perspective and emphatic contours – she paints here a young girl sitting in an orchard. The child seems to be lost in a pleasant daydream. The languid atmosphere of this warm late-summer day is reinforced by the play of light and shade created by the dense foliage. It is only when we look more closely that we notice the cradle that almost completely fills the midground, containing a soundly sleeping baby.
Toward the end of the 18th century, two historical events helped shape the representation of childhood and motherhood in literature and the visual arts: the publication, in 1762, of Emile or On Education by Jean-Jacques Rousseau, and the beginning of the Romantic period. Maternal love, and especially childhood, were idolized and associated with innocence and purity.
Visual culture played a significant role in transforming the understanding of childhood as a free, happy stage of life, followed by adulthood. But by adding the cradle to her painting, Bell suggests that not all children can enjoy this freedom, and that, at the threshold of adolescence, this girl must already prepare herself for the role late 19th-century society has in store for her as an adult woman.
Winter Evening on Craig Street, Montreal, 1912
Then began a period of intensive study of the effects of light upon snow with all its intricate system of complementary colours and reflections. Few have equalled his sureness in interpreting this aspect of nature.
In this winter landscape, Maurice Cullen, a pioneer of Canadian Impressionism, exemplifies the principles he has learned in France to convey the feeling of intense cold and the varied textures and colours of snow of this night scene. However, we are far from traditional winter landscapes. Cullen, who knew the city from a very young age, chose Montreal as his location, but looks upon the familiar environment with new eyes.
At the turn of the 20th century, winter, and particularly the idealized representation of winter in the countryside, had long been a recurring theme in Quebec painting. The cold climate had become a symbol of Canadian identity, and the snow was part of a pictorial vocabulary that had permeated the collective imagination.
Here, Cullen looks at a cityscape that has been transformed substantially by burgeoning industrialization. The moon, so ubiquitous in paintings before the advent of electricity, is replaced here by an electric light. But the horse harnessed to the sleigh reminds us that not everything changes at the same pace.
Lawren S. Harris
A Load of Fence Posts, 1911
Any paintings, drawings or sketches I saw with a Canadian tang in them excited me more than anything I had seen in Europe – [they] were like sign posts pointing my direction.
This painting is probably based on sketches Lawren Harris brought back from a winter trip he had taken.
He seems already to be thinking about the role he and the other members of the future Group of Seven will play, nine years later, in the emergence of a national vision.
The composition brings to mind the romantic images, in vogue at the turn of the century, of northern Canada as a place of rugged masculine individualism. The solitary figure of a woodsman bringing back a heavy load of logs on a sleigh is silhouetted against a fiery sunrise. The snow-covered road disappearing into the distant forest suggests the length and dangers of the journey required to transport the logs to the nearest river. Wood was still harvested manually in 1911, and the work involved human and animal labour. Here, Harris creates a visual allegory of Canadian identity built on the precepts of strength and independence.
But as John O’Brian and Peter White point out in Beyond Wilderness: The Group of Seven, Canadian Identity, and Contemporary Art, “In all these postcolonial countries, landscape has functioned as a powerful political unifier. It has helped to consolidate the drive toward national sovereignty, as well as to contain prior aboriginal claims to the land” – claims that have regularly been brought before the courts since the late 18th century, contesting the appropriation of their territories and the violation of their rights.
Summer Afternoon, The Prairie, 1921
The seeing of a tree, a cloud, an earth form always gives me a greater feeling of life than the human body.
This was the first time FitzGerald was confronted with the immensity of the prairie sky and its sprawling horizon. For him, “intense light and the feeling of great space are dominating characteristics and are the major problems of the prairie artist.”
FitzGerald began by making a detailed pencil sketch outdoors, then painted from memory in his studio. The juxtaposed dabs of complementary colours give the work its decorative appearance and capture the glint and shimmer produced by the intense heat of that prairie summer day. A few details indicate that the land is inhabited and cultivated: in the foreground a bridge crosses a culvert, and in the distance, at the edge of the woods, the red roof of a farmhouse stands out against the green of the trees.
Unlike the other members of the Group of Seven, FitzGerald worked almost exclusively in Manitoba in western Canada and, as a late addition to the group, was not overly concerned with promoting art that represented the Canadian identity. According to the artist Bertram Brooker, FitzGerald was “constantly searching for the structure, spatial relationships and colour subtleties of the subjects he approache[d].”
Anna, c. 1927
Dominating the space of the painting, Anna, a young woman with a direct gaze, sits in a winter landscape composed of expressionist shapes and colours. At a time when feminist voices were demanding changes in the role women played in society, Prudence Heward’s psychologically complex painting is a far cry from the stereotypes of late 19th century female portraiture.
In her ‘figures’ – a term she preferred to ‘portrait’ – Heward does much more than simply create a likeness of a particular woman.
[Heward] called into question the masculinist view of Canadian national identity evident in… the Group of Seven’s landscapes in their effort to create a nationalist art, [and] introduced a new type of femininity in which women … [were] modern subjects.
Like a number of the women artists in the Beaver Hall Group with which she was associated, Heward helped revitalize figure painting. The gender parity in the group, formed in 1920, was a first in Canada, and this no doubt explains its attraction for female artists. The latter were “typical of the ‘modern woman’ of the early 20th century.” Many of them “remained single, explored the possibilities of companionship outside marriage and, even more importantly, forged careers for themselves as artists …”
Kathleen Moir Morris
After “Grand Mass,” Berthier-en-Haut, 1927
I once saw all those horses in front of the nice old church. Sometimes there were as many as three hundred all with different coloured blankets.
In the early 20th century, the landscape occupied the major part of Quebec’s visual production. This was, in part, due to the desire to represent, using images of the terroir, or ‘the soil’, the continuity of the French-Canadian habitants’ collective identity.
Kathleen Moir Morris, who was interested in the buildings and traditional activities of French Canadians, and specialized in street scenes featuring bright colours and simplified shapes, takes up here up one of her favourite subjects.
In this colourful, dynamic painting, inhabitants of the village of Berthier-en-Haut are coming out of the church after attending Grand Mass. The atmosphere on this lovely winter day is relaxed, and groups are chatting in front of the church while others are returning to their sleighs hitched to horses whose colourful blankets contrast with the snow and frozen puddles.