Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Les fiançailles no. 5

Jean McEwen
Les fiançailles no. 5

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1976 lower right; signed, titled and dated on the reverse
72 x 72 ins ( 182.9 x 182.9 cms )

Auction Estimate: $35,000.00$25,000.00 - $35,000.00

Price Realized $88,500.00
Sale date: May 29th 2018

Mira Godard Gallery, Toronto
The Collection of TransCanada PipeLines Limited, Calgary
Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, December 1987 - January 1988
Constance Naubert-Riser, Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, paintings and works on paper, 1951-1987, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, pages 37-39 and 46-49, reproduced page 111
The monumental painting “Les Fiançailles No. 5” constitutes an example of Jean McEwen’s mature work that reference a previous theme of monochromatic white canvases in 1955-56. Art historian Constance Naubert-Riser remarks that “the development of [McEwen’s] painting does not follow a linear model, but rather a circular one.” What distinguishes this series from past ones is the particular opalescent quality of the white. The examination of the opalescence of white is the object of the “Les Fiançailles” series as well as two other series - “Temple heureux” and “Epithalames”. These three series, which translate to “The Betrothal”, “Temple of Bliss” and “Epithalamiums”, make reference in their titles and white palette to McEwen’s second marriage in 1976. During these later years, the artist’s titles often linked to particular events that occurred at the time the works were executed. In this case, Naubert-Riser writes that “the verbal image is no longer based on pictorial elements common to the series, but evokes - discreetly and poetically - an event of recollection.”

Jean McEwen wanted his abstract paintings to be a sensory experience for the viewer. McEwen was so preoccupied by the realm of pure sensation that “he felt no need to burden his paintings with transcendental meaning.” His canvases are layered with translucent and opaque colour, achieving textural effects resulting from the varying thicknesses of the pictorial surface. Important works such as “Les Fiançailles No. 5” contain “effects of depth that push the possibilities offered by the medium to their very limits.”

Dappled with grey and white oil paint in varying opacities, the alluring canvas of “Les Fiançailles No. 5” evokes McEwen’s signature effects of dramatic depth. The painting is structured with more opaque bands of white along the left and right edges, and a soft band of yellow along the lower edge. These areas frame the composition and create an optical entryway into the seemingly infinite depths of the artwork.

“Les Fiançailles No. 5” was featured in a major retrospective of McEwen’s work, Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts from December 1987 to January 1988, curated by Constance Naubert-Riser, professor of Art History at the University of Montreal.

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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.