Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Vert-noir-vert

Jean McEwen

oil on canvas
signed, titled, dated 1965 and inscribed “Le vert paradis des amours enfantines...” and “Est-il déjà plus loin que l'Inde et que la Chine? / Baudelaire” on the reverse
72 x 70 ins ( 182.9 x 177.8 cms )

Auction Estimate: $22,000.00$18,000.00 - $22,000.00

Price Realized $14,455.00
Sale date: November 20th 2018

Private Collection, Toronto
Between 1965 and 1969, McEwen experimented with hard-edge abstraction and acrylic paints, moving away from his practice of layered oil paints. Prevalent in the New York art scene, hard-edge abstraction was also picked up in Montreal with non-figurative painters as many of the artists either had gallery representation or cross-over with their American counterparts. With a decidedly more graphic style, McEwen employed this technique in “Vert-noir-vert”. A solid vertical strip of black occupies the centre of the canvas, flanked by a thin stripe of hot pink on each side. Bands of green with flecks of yellow pigment on the right and left sides suggest a sense of depth, in stark contrast to the central black panel. Often using a solid vertical rectangular strip to divide the composition, the contrast between the abstract background of colour interrupted by an uneven layer of black and the flattened dividing form explores the limitations of depth created by both form and colour. Devoted to exploring the power of colour, tones and texture and the sensation that colour can create, McEwen delivers works in keeping with period experimentation while maintaining his true core artistic purpose.

The inscription on the reverse of “Vert-noir-vert” references lines from a 1857 poem by Charles Baudelaire, the Latin title “Moesta et Errabunda” translating to “Grieving and Wandering”.

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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.