Before the Group of Seven and Tom Thomson, there was… what? Well, it turns out a lot, in fact, of the fabulous native art that dates back thousands of years to a sadly little-recognized school known as the Canadian Impressionists, which came a generation before the founding of the legendary Group of Seven in 1920.
They are men and women who traveled to Europe, most often to Paris, to study art and began to paint in a modernist manner made famous by Claude Monet and Pierre-Auguste Renoir. Not religious and mythological scenes for them: they wanted to paint contemporary life with an emphasis on light and its changing qualities.
Labeled “Group of Who” several years ago in this journal by art writer James Adams, the Canadian Impressionists have somehow lost themselves in time.
Consider them found in 2022. On February 2, after two frustrating delays caused by pandemic restrictions, a special exhibition celebrating their achievements will finally open its doors at the National Gallery of Canada.
Entitled Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, 1880-1930, the exhibition will present 108 works by 36 artists, including James Wilson Morrice, Maurice Cullen, Helen McNicoll, Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté or Emily Carr and several of the Group of Seven, who began painting as Impressionists.
(Due to ongoing capacity limits in Ontario, visitors are advised to book tickets in advance through gallery.ca.)
A slightly different version of the exhibition has already had considerable success in Europe, where it opened in 2019 to rave reviews in Munich, Germany; Lausanne, Switzerland; and Montpellier, France. The German crowds were so enthusiastic that they lined up to enter the Kunsthalle, with over 100,000 people taking part in the Canadian Impressionists. Unfortunately, the Lausanne salon and the Montpellier salon had to close after six weeks due to new waves of COVID-19.
“Wherever the exhibition traveled,” says Ash Prakash, the Toronto-based art collector who is the show’s sponsor, “the overwhelming reaction from German, Swiss and French art critics was: ‘How haven’t we heard of this band?'” (The AK Prakash Foundation was a major contributor, along with other partners, to the tour.)
The National Gallery of Canada‘s senior curator, Katerina Atanassova, fell in love with the works of the Canadian Impressionists when she organized, with Prakash’s help, a major exhibition of Morrice’s work. Prakash, 75, has already donated dozens of Morrice’s paintings to the National Gallery of Canada and has long believed that Canadian artists such as Morrice, Thomson and Carr should be as revered as Monet and other European masters.
“This experience put me on this period of Canadian art,” says Atanassova, who was born and raised in Bulgaria. “My goal was to place Canadian art in a global context. … There were so many amazing artists that have been long forgotten.
“It’s absolutely true to say that most Canadians regard the Group of Seven as the canon or core group of artists,” says Sasha Suda, Director and CEO of the National Gallery of Canada. “I don’t know how many times people think about what came before them.”
And yet, from the early 1880s until 1930, Canadian Impressionism was the dominant art form in the country.
“These artists were so bold back then,” says Atanassova. Many thought they had to travel abroad to learn from the best teachers. “Just going abroad took courage. There may be common pride in their accomplishments, but little national or international attention. We tend to recognize an artist only after they have been accepted overseas.
The project was conceived, Suda says, as something that could teach others about the importance of Impressionism in Canada. “France is generally considered to be the genesis of Impressionist art. It was, but it’s a movement that also had roots here in Canada.
Prakash, originally from India, was a young rising star in the Ottawa bureaucracy – he would go on to serve in both the Privy Council Office and the Prime Minister’s Office – when he went to work for UNESCO in Paris at the end of the 1970s.
“I visited galleries at every opportunity,” he says, “and discovered the magic of light.”
Upon his return to Ottawa, he began researching the Canadian artists who brought Impressionism back to Canada. “They continued to paint in a style even though there was no market for it at the time,” he says. “It blows my mind – it was a passion they just had to pursue.”
Finally, decades later, there was a market. Prakash himself ended up becoming a collector after paying $40,000 for a small “pocket painting” of a Venice scene by Morrice. “I had no reason to buy it,” he says. “It just took my breath away. I could barely afford it, but I did it.
Atanassova’s intense research – a 296-page art book with several essays accompanies the exhibition – has led to a new reflection on these artists. While William Blair Bruce of Hamilton is often called Canada’s first Impressionist, Frances Jones produced the first significant painting in this style, an 1883 portrait of a room in the family’s Halifax home. In the conservatory belongs to the Nova Scotia Archives and is considered too fragile to leave the country, but will be in Ottawa for the new exhibit.
If there is a pleasant surprise in this exhibition, it is the large number of female painters included. The Group of Seven is so dominant in the history of Canadian art that it sometimes feels like an old boys’ club.
“The women came from coast to coast,” Atanassova explains. “Frances Jones came from Halifax. Helen McNicoll came from Toronto. Emily Carr and Sophie Pemberton from Victoria.
Essayist Anna Hudson, who teaches art history at York University, writes in the exhibition book that the “woman question” was a big debate of the time. Painters such as McNicoll, Pemberton, Jones and others “celebrated their modernity” through their paintings, often charming scenes of children and mothers who represented the “New Woman”.
The debate over the role of women in society even led humorist Stephen Leacock to address the issue in the pages of Maclean’s: “The vacuum cleaner can take the place of the housewife. He cannot replace the mother. … When women have the right to vote, there will be no more poverty, no more disease, no more germs, no more cigarettes and nothing to drink but water. It would be, he added, “a dark world”.
But there is no gloom here. Only light and fresh air.
The only concern, of course, is the pandemic. Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons Has Already Been Delayed Once.
“It was supposed to open right in the middle of the first few months of the pandemic,” says Suda. “But it’s amazing that we’ve had a lot of visitors through this. Our attendance is almost pre-pandemic. We’ve seen 80% of our pre-COVID attendance.
Suda also points out that although the Ontario government limits the gallery’s capacity to 50%, the building is so large that it rarely reaches that level during the winter months. “We’re lucky to have such a big space,” she says.
“I hope so much that we can organize the whole exhibition as planned,” says Atanassova. “It is scheduled to last until June 12. It is such an uplifting event. At this particular time of the year, it is sunny.
As Prakash discovered in Paris over 40 years ago, Impressionist art is “the magic of light”.
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