Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Abstract Composition

Jean McEwen
Abstract Composition

signed and dated 1956 lower left
13.75 x 10 ins ( 34.9 x 25.4 cms ) ( sheet )

Private Collection, Toronto
Roald Nasgaard, “Abstract Painting in Canada”, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007, pages 174-177
Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood, “The Automatiste Revolution”, Markham, 2009, pages 82-85
A member of the Non-Figurative Artists' Association of Montreal, McEwen is known for his strategic layered application of paint and experimentation with the transparency and sensuality of material. Painting in Montreal, the artist was influenced by the Automatiste painters, especially Paul-Émile Borduas, with non-figurative all-over abstraction. Working with watercolour, the artist uses similar layering techniques in “Abstract Composition” as he employed in his large oil paintings. Building up colour, varying between hues of green, yellow, grey and red, McEwen creates veils of translucent colour of varying opacity. Hints of base pigments are revealed through applied sheets of contrasting colours creating the illusion of depth on the flat surface of the paper. Here, the artist is able to create a trompe l'oeil perception of depth with watery washes of colour in a similar manner as his application of layered and built up oil paint. The work holds testament to McEwen's devotion to testing the limitations of the medium, focusing on the reduction of painting to the importance of the material over figurative subject matter.

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Jean Albert McEwen
(1923 - 1999) RCA

Montreal-born painter Jean McEwen is most well-known for his abstracted paintings that focus on light and color relationships. Born in 1923, McEwen trained as a pharmacist at the University of Montreal and wrote poetry for Québec based literary journals, such as Gants du ciel. McEwen’s initial art career was inspired by a film, The Moon and Sixpence, which is based off of the life and work of Paul Gauguin. As a self-taught artist he was most interested in the feelings that paintings gave him and the exploration of color and light. While his paintings are abstract in nature, some may find that their eyes piece together imagery, such as water damage or ice-covered windows when viewing his works. During his lifetime his paintings toured the United States, Japan, Brazil, and throughout Canada.

McEwen was mentored by Automatiste artist, Paul Émilie Borduas in the early 1950s. At Borduas’ suggestion, McEwen traveled to Paris for a year where he was mentored by Jean Paul Piopelle. Together they traveled to Spain, Italy, Holland, and spent the summer in Brittany, France. After spending this time in Europe, he began working in a style that incorporated ideas from the French Impressionists as well as Abstract Expressionists who were popular in the United States. McEwen worked in a style that favored symmetrical compositions, and subtly referenced bodily movement and its relationship to nature.

Throughout the early 1950s, McEwen began regularly appearing in galleries in Québec and Ontario. His first solo exhibition took place in Ottawa at Galerie Agnes Lefort, and he appeared in Montreal’s Galerie Actuelle for an exhibition on non-figurative art in the 1950s. In 1960, he published his first book, Midi Temps J’aime-Poème en Couleur. Based off of his time spent on the east coast, McEwen shared poetry and his drawings in color in his publication. Until 1961, McEwen was working full-time for a Montreal based pharmaceutical company. After receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, he reduced his hours spent at the pharmacy to focus on painting. He continued working at the pharmacy part-time until the 1970s.

After leaving the pharmaceutical industry, McEwen accepted lecturer positions at the Université du Québec à Trois Rivières and at Concordia University’s Department of Visual Arts. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts dedicated the first retrospective to McEwen’s art in 1987. In 2019, the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts put on an exhibition, Untamed Colour: Celebrating Jean McEwen, to honour the artist and showcase the selection of the artist’s works that the museum has collected over the past two decades.

Literature Sources: The Canadian Encyclopedia, “Jean McEwen” Historica Canada, Accessed June 18, 2020
Ian McGillis, “Discovered Again: MMFA Honours Jean McEwen 20 Years After His Death, “Montreal Gazette, September 27, 2019

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography.