Artwork by William Paterson Ewen,  Untitled (1955)

Paterson Ewen
Untitled (1955)

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1955 lower right
60 x 86.75 ins ( 152.4 x 220.3 cms )

Auction Estimate: $60,000.00$40,000.00 - $60,000.00

Price Realized $29,900.00
Sale date: November 22nd 2016

SUNY New Paltz, School of Education, New York
Private Collection, New York
Private Collection, British Columbia
Matthew Teitelbaum (ed.), “Paterson Ewen,” Toronto, 1996, pages 47, 49 and 51
A Montreal native, Paterson Ewen attended classes at the School of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from 1948-1950, studying under Goodridge Roberts, Arthur Lismer, William Armstrong, among others. As a student he was also influenced by European Post-Impressionist artists, which is apparent in the fractured surfaces of his landscapes, still lifes and portraits. Ewen’s painterly approach shifted upon encountering Francoise Sullivan, an automatist dancer, whom he would marry in December 1949. He was introduced to automatism through Sullivan’s writings, as well as her enduring friendships with Quebec abstract painters of the group ‘les automatistes’ Jean-Paul Mousseau and Pierre Gauvreau. Ewen’s entry into the largely francophone art scene through his wife came at a moment when the Automatistes were separating and disagreeing over intellectual positions. Yet these artists took a liking to Ewen and encouraged his early 1950s figurative paintings which demonstrated a breakdown of subject matter. Nevertheless, they of course rejected any representational imagery, believing that “abstraction offered the truest release from the constraints of order.”

“Untitled” (1955) was painted during Paterson Ewen’s breakthrough into fully abstract compositions. Ewen’s work of the time was characterized by a “dominant, gridlike calligraphy that was opened, centralized, and organized by concentric thrust.” “Untitled’s” twisting lines contain a calligraphic effect that would recall the writing and drawing of Surrealist automatism. However, unlike the Automatistes, who relied heavily on effects of the palette knife and dripping paint, Ewen maintained a more flattened composition with muted colours. During these years, Ewen found himself a latecomer to the Montreal abstract art scene and never fully associated a particular group or strategy, be it the gestural technique of the Automatistes or the rigid canvases of Les Plasticiens. His “predominant aesthetic was a loosely based abstract lyricism rooted in the observation of natural phenomenon.” Ewen’s preliminary non-representational compositions of the mid-1950s, such as “Untitled”, are more gestural than those of the subsequent ten years, where he explored geometric forms, loosely affiliated to hard-edge painting.

Share this item with your friends

William Paterson Ewen
(1925 - 2002) RCA

Born in Montreal, Quebec, on April 7, 1925, William Paterson Ewen was interested in art beginning at an early age. As a toddler, Ewen asked his mother for wax to make a tree and several small figures. Ewen’s mother was uninterested in décor and refused to purchase decorative items for their house until Ewen was thirteen and requested artist reproductions from Jean-Baptiste Greuze and Jean-François Millet. Three years later, at age sixteen, Ewen produced his first major artistic project––a clay bust of his sister. Around this time, Ewen visited his aunt in Ottawa, where he toured the National Museum of Man (now the Canadian Museum of History). At this museum, Ewen was inspired by Japanese woodprints, and landscapes. Throughout Ewen’s life, Japanese art would be important to his art making practice.

After convincing a doctor to record his eyesight as “perfect,” Ewen joined the military and scouted enemy troops on the Western Front but did not participate in any battles. Once the war was over, Ewen decommissioned and enrolled in a Bachelor of Arts program at McGill University in Montreal in 1946. He declared a science major, but almost did not pass his first year due to bouts with depression.

During the summer after his first year at university, he began copying magazine covers and drew landscapes around Quebec City. He was overcome with his interest in drawing and transferred to a Bachelor of Fine Arts program at McGill where he was taught by American artist John Lyman. Ewen did not appreciate Lyman’s attempt to introduce modernism to Canada and transferred to the Montréal Museum School of Fine Art and Design where he found a sympathetic environment for his art making process.

In 1949, Ewen met Françoise Sullivan, an Automatistes member, who introduced him to other members of the group. He found meetings with the Automatistes interesting and enriching; eventually influences from the movement can be found in his work as his brushstrokes became looser and through his experimentations with color. The Automatistes found similarities in Ewen’s figurative paintings and invited him to exhibit alongside the group.

In May 1950, Ewen put together his first solo exhibition in a rented basement on Crescent Street and sold many of the works on display. The exhibition was positively reviewed in the “Montreal Herald” and “Le Devoir”. In 1954, Ewen painted his first abstract work, which was presented publicly at Espace 55 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and soon after at the Galerie L’Actuelle. He later became a founding member of the Non-Figurative Artists’ Association of Montreal. In the same year Ewen participated in his first solo exhibition outside of Montreal at the Parma Gallery in New York, where his works were reviewed as being derivative of Paul Cézanne and Wassily Kandinsky.

“In 1961, Dorothy Pfeiffer noted his work as follows, “Ominous and somber, yet paradoxically painted in intense, rich, colour, the thickly modelled, prodded, plastered and raked expressions of Canadian artist, Paterson Ewen, as seen at Galerie Denyse Delrue, transfix one’s almost awed attention . . . To my mind, Paterson Ewen’s brilliantly demoniac paintings add an archaic echo to the 20th Century’s clamorous unrest and fear . . .’”

After his divorce, in 1968, Ewen fell into a depression where he stopped talking and making art. He spent the summer at Westminster Veterans Hospital and took part in electroconvulsive therapy. Ewen then settled in London and emersed himself in the art scene there. He was hired as a teacher at the H.B. Beal Secondary School in London in 1968 and worked there until 1971. After quitting his job, he experimented with “Traces Through Space” (1970), which is suggestive of weather and celestial phenomena and received a Canada Council grant, beginning to work in plywood. In 1971, Ewen was assigned to the University of Western Ontario’s Department of Visual Arts as a lecturer.

The 1970s and 1980s were a golden period in Ewen’s life. Ewen traveled to Europe and gained new influences for his art. He was a visiting artist at the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy of Fine Art in 1975, represented Canada at the 1982 Venice Biennale, and received honorary degrees from Concordia University and the University of Western Ontario. A major solo exhibition was curated at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1996 on Ewen’s behalf.

Literature Sources:
"A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Sources: Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977
Hatch, John G. Paterson Ewen: Life and Work. Toronto: Art Institute Canada, 2018 (”

We extend our thanks to Danie Klein, York University graduate student in art history, for writing and contributing this artist biography (with a passage quoted from “A Dictionary of Canadian Artists).