Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Auto-portrait ocre et rouge #6

Jean McEwen
Auto-portrait ocre et rouge #6

oil on canvas
signed, titled and dated 1980 on the reverse
70 x 50 ins ( 177.8 x 127 cms )

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

Price Realized $21,240.00
Sale date: June 15th 2022

Marlborough Godard Gallery, Toronto/Montreal
Robertson Galleries, Ottawa
Private Collection, Toronto
Roald Nasgaard, “Abstract Painting in Canada”, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007, pages 174-78
Constance Naubert-Riser, “Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth, paintings and works on paper, 1951-1987”, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1987, pages 46-49
Over the course of his influential painting career, Jean McEwen experimented with various techniques in applying colour to his canvases. He was one of the first Quebec artists following the Automatiste movement to explore colour in such depth and on a monumental scale. He turned to acrylic paint for a few years, experimented in hard-edge painting and explored several compositional formats for his abstract paintings, but the constant that remained in his work was his insistence on the importance of colour.

Roald Nasgaard describes McEwen’s devotion to colour, “His continuous coloured textures are built out of strata of superimposed paint layers, sometimes as many as a dozen. Their ever more variegated hues and tones lie in ambiguous depths, sometimes opaque and other times transparent and luminous. Light emanates from within them or it reflects from their surfaces, and often they seem dappled like sunlight in a Renoir nude.”

“Auto-portrait ocre et rouge #6”, is one of McEwen’s mature canvases, exemplifying his complex layering technique of oil paint in a variety of colours. The initial colour scheme that the viewer can identify is pale grey and mint green; however upon closer examination, especially taking into account the title’s mention of ochre and red, one can find many other hues, including yellow, red, blue and pink throughout the layers of pigment. The artist wanted his abstract paintings to be a sensory experience for the viewer.

Constance Naubert-Riser writes that McEwen was so preoccupied by the realm of pure sensation that “he felt no need to burden his paintings with transcendental meaning.” His layered canvases, such as “Auto-portrait ocre et rouge #6”, achieves intricate textural effects resulting from the varying thicknesses of the pictorial surface, and contains “effects of depth that push the possibilities offered by the medium to their very limits.”

In the year 1980, McEwen found great success within the Canadian art scene; he was the subject of solo exhibitions in Quebec City and Calgary, and accepted a lecturer position for a fine arts course on colour at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. He had returned from a ten month stay in Paris in June 1978, and exhibited a highly colourful “Suite parisienne” series shortly thereafter. The subsequent Autoportrait series is markedly calmer and more muted in its palette, possibly in reaction to preceding works. “Auto-portrait ocre et rouge #6” exemplifies McEwen’s ability to continuously explore colour throughout his career in a consistently evolving and refreshing manner.

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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.