Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Untitled Abstract

Jean McEwen
Untitled Abstract

signed and dated 1952 lower right
14 x 20.5 ins ( 35.6 x 52.1 cms ) ( sheet )

Auction Estimate: $15,000.00$12,000.00 - $15,000.00

Price Realized $12,650.00
Sale date: May 25th 2017

Mayberry Fine Art, Toronto
Private Collection, Toronto
Constance Naubert-Riser, Jean McEwen, Colour in Depth: paintings and works on paper 1951-1987, Musée de Beaux-Arts de Montréal, 1987, pages 23-27
Jean Albert McEwen left Montreal to spend a year in Paris in 1951. Paul-Emile Borduas had encouraged him to visit the French capital and contact Jean-Paul Riopelle, who had been there since 1946. A decisive shift in painterly approach occurred in Paris due to a combination of several influential factors: McEwen encountered the art of the museums, as well as the exhibitions of contemporaneous avant-garde abstract artists. He saw Riopelle’s solo show in December, followed by those of Sam Francis and Jackson Pollock in the spring of 1952. McEwen’s simultaneous discovery of these three artists linked to the “allover” style of Abstract Expressionism initiated a transformation in his work. His style at the time had been akin to that of Borduas, consisting of plant-like forms hovering amid an indeterminate background, and evolved into an approach closer to abstract “field” painting, with no focal-point in the composition nor any reference to landscape or plant motifs.

“Untitled Abstract” is one of many watercolour and ink on paper artworks that McEwen produced during the summer of 1952 in Belle-Ile-en-Mer, where he was accompanied by Riopelle. This series of watercolours bear a resemblance to those by Riopelle of the same period, characterized by a rhythmic brushstroke application. Constance Naubert-Riser compares the work of the two artists and describes McEwen’s series as composed of “a network of black strokes in India ink - quite non-linear, unlike the one employed by Riopelle in his watercolours from the same period - was superimposed on another series of strokes in brightly-coloured links.” These watercolours served as experiments that lead to McEwen’s first truly all-over oil canvases.

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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.