Artwork by James Edward Hervey MacDonald,  Tracks and Traffic

J.E.H. MacDonald
Tracks and Traffic

oil on board
signed and dated 1912 lower right
7.5 x 10.5 ins ( 19.1 x 26.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $250,000.00$200,000.00 - $250,000.00

Price Realized $230,000.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2016

Private Collection, Nova Scotia
Waddington’s, auction, Toronto, November 24, 2014, Lot 58
Masters Gallery, Vancouver
Private Collection
Albert H. Robson, “J.E.H. MacDonald,” Toronto, 1937, page 13 (plate 1), canvas reproduced
E.R. Hunter, “J.E.H. MacDonald: A Biography and Catalogue of His Work,” Toronto, 1940, plate 2, canvas reproduced
Lawren Harris, “The Group of Seven in Canadian History”, “The Canadian Historical Association: Report of the Annual Meeting Held at Victoria and Vancouver, June 16-19, 1948,” page 31
Nancy E. Robertson, J.E.H. MacDonald, R.C.A., 1873-1932, Art Gallery of Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada, 1965, page 8; page 19 (plate 9), canvas reproduced; page 45 (plate 50) oil sketch of subject (Collection of R.A. Laidlaw), reproduced
J. Russell Harper, “Painting in Canada,” Toronto, 1966, page 274 for an alternate oil sketch of the subject (reproduced)
Joan Murray, “Impressionism in Canada, 1895-1935,” Art Gallery of Ontario, 1973, Page 126, plate 103, canvas reproduced
Paul Duval, “The Tangled Garden: The Art of J.E.H. MacDonald, Scarborough,” 1978, page 43; page 31, plate 31, canvas reproduced
A.K. Prakash, “Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery,” Stuttgart, 2015, pages 240 and 241, plate 6.12, canvas reproduced
James Adams, “AGO’s New Lawren Harris Exhibition Celebrates, Complicates Artist’s Legacy”, “Globe and Mail,” Toronto, July 1, 2016, Visual Arts section
One overcast morning early in 1912, J.E.H. MacDonald made his way to Toronto’s harbourfront near the intersection of Bathurst and Front Street. Bisected by the CPR tracks, home to a shipyard, docks, coal sheds and a freight depot as well as a livestock market, this industrialized zone was not exactly picturesque. Working with oils on a small board, MacDonald began painting the most conspicuous feature in the smoke-belching landscape: the giant cylindrical gasometers of Consumers’ Gas Company Station C.

This expedition marked an important moment in the career of MacDonald, then aged thirty-eight and newly resigned from his post as senior artist at Grip Limited, the commercial design firm where he had been the boss of, among others, Tom Thomson and Arthur Lismer. He was planning to devote himself full-time to landscape painting. However, an industrial subject was unusual for him: he customarily painted beauty spots in the Humber Valley and High Park in Toronto, near to where he lived, or along the Magnetawan River in northern Ontario where he took his summer vacations.

This harbourfront location was undoubtedly prompted by a new friend, Lawren Harris, an aspiring painter whose interest lay equally in the northern landscape and the modern city. The two men had met a few months previously when, in November 1911, the Arts and Letters Club exhibited a selection of MacDonald’s landscapes. Harris would later claim that these works accomplished “what I was groping toward—Canada painted in her own spirit.” The two men quickly became friends with a common cause: fostering a new and distinctively Canadian style of landscape painting.

Harris’s interest in urban scenes dated at least from the time of his studies under Franz Skarbina in Germany in 1905. Skarbina, a Berliner, had specialized in the Stimmungsbild, or “atmosphere painting,” which mixed social realism with an Impressionist-inspired attention to the visual effects of smoke, steam and electricity in the bustling metropolis. Harris had recently begun depicting scenes of Toronto’s burgeoning industrial life, including a pencil sketch of one of the two gasometers at Station C from a vantage-point along the CPR tracks.

MacDonald may well have been present when Harris made his sketch. If so, it marked the first known expedition together by two future members of the Group of Seven. MacDonald produced his own version of the gasometers from a spot some 200 yards to the west of where Harris worked, near the entrance to old Fort York, looking northeast across the freight depot and CPR tracks. His painted sketch shows a wooden sidewalk beyond which we see stacks of lumber, railway carriages, and the two sombre behemoths that stored the gas for illuminating Toronto’s streets and homes. The painting is a tribute to the young country’s booming industries: Canada had the world’s fastest growing economy in the first decade of the twentieth century, and MacDonald shows, in the orderly stacks of planks and boards, one of its greatest exports. However, the real subject of the painting is the atmosphere on that dim winter morning: the tinted layers of snow, the jaundiced morning sky, and above all the spectacularly billowing steam from a CPR locomotive.

MacDonald immediately turned this energetic sketch into a larger painting, originally entitled “Tracks and Traffic, Frosty Morning” (Art Gallery of Ontario). He showed this larger work, done on canvas, a few weeks later at the 1912 exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists and then again that summer at the Canadian National Exhibition. A critic for “The Studio,” a prestigious international journal of modern art, celebrated it as “a tour de force of the effects of steam and snow.”

In order to paint Canada “in her own spirit,” MacDonald would ultimately turn north, to the pine and boulder landscapes of Georgian Bay and the waterfalls of Algoma. But this vivid sketch reveals how his modernism and artistic nationalism also spread their roots in Toronto, whose prosperous industries offered both a sublime spectacle and testimony of a young country’s self-confident progress.

We extend our thanks to Ross King, historian and author of nonfiction books on Italian, French and Canadian art and history, including “Defiant Spirits: The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven” for contributing the preceding essay.

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James Edward Hervey MacDonald
(1873 - 1932) Group of Seven, OSA, RCA

J.E.H. MacDonald was born in Durham, England in 1873 of Canadian parents. He took evening art classes at the Hamilton Art School as a teenager, before relocating to Toronto. In Toronto, he studied at the Central Ontario School of Art. From 1894, he worked as a graphic designer at Grip Ltd. In 1903, he sailed for England and joined Carlton Studios, a London graphic firm. On his return to Canada in 1907 he rejoined Grip and began to paint the landscape near Toronto. Around this time, Tom Thomson joined the Grip staff. Frank H. Johnston joined a short time later. These artists found that they had much in common and began going on sketching trips as a group. In 1910, he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Canadian Academy. By 1912, all the original members of the Group of Seven had met and were sketching quite regularly together. MacDonald was devastated by the accidental drowning of Tom Thomson in 1917. He designed a brass plaque to Thomson's memory which was mounted to a cairn erected at Canoe Lake. The first official Group of Seven exhibition took place in May of 1920. MacDonald accepted a teaching position at the Ontario College of Art in 1921 and was appointed as principal in 1929. He continued to go on painting trips, but his teaching responsibilities sapped his energies and he did few large canvases during this time. He died in Toronto in 1932.