Artwork by James Wilson Morrice,  Study for “Village Street, West Indies” (circa 1916-1919)

J.W. Morrice
Study for “Village Street, West Indies” (circa 1916-1919)

signed lower left; inscribed “Trinidad - Village Street” on the reverse; F.R. Heaton Estate No. 130
8.25 x 11.75 ins ( 21 x 29.8 cms ) ( sight )

Sold for $18,500.00
Sale date: September 24th 2020

F.R. Heaton, Private Collection (1939: Estate)
Continental Gallery, Montreal (Fall 1949)
Mrs. Lucile E. Pillow, bought from above (Oct. 28, 1949)
By descent to the present Private Collection
Heaton Collection, Continental Gallery, Montreal, October 1949
“Art - Fine Paintings Shown in Heaton Collection”, The Gazette (Montreal), October 22, 1949, page 26, mentions “two figures near a pool edged by palms... and a hut-lined village street.”
Irene Szylinger, “The Watercolours of James Wilson Morrice 1865-1924”, [M.A. Thesis, University of Toronto], 1983, pages 87 (Pond) and 89-90 (long paragraph on Village)
Irene Szylinger, “Les aquarelles de James Wilson Morrice / A Brief Analysis of the Watercolours”, in Nicole Cloutier, James Wilson Morrice, 1865-1924, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 1985 (exhibition catalogue), pages 79-88 (Village page 85)
Watercolour was young Morrice’s preferred medium before his departure for Europe, and until about 1892; and then... almost nothing for 25 years. But from the end of the war to his death, watercolour studies gradually replaced the pochades on wood panels he is best known for. Of course, their style has changed; the late watercolours are relaxed, their colours are applied very lightly, and soon the artist would transfer this style to the canvases he developed from them. “Village Street, West Indies” and “The Pond, West Indies”, both in the Montreal Museum collection, are among the best examples.

“The Pond’s” (Lot 32) quiet harmony always made unanimity; and “Village Street” did most of the time, especially for its balance between depth and surface, but some authors were intrigued by its small figure on the road, “at once static and moving” (Szylinger), so unlike Morrice. The riddle was solved by the chance discovery of a postcard: the photographer had simply caught the boy in mid-movement. More printed sources used by Morrice were soon discovered, including the one for “The Pond”. Both postcards (see page 41), from the same Havana publisher, represent generic views of the Cuban countryside, mechanically colorized; Morrice probably bought them during his Spring 1915 sojourn.

Thanks to the first postcard’s title, we know that our “Village Street”, lined by palm-thatched bohios, bisects a fishermen village... the sea is probably behind us. Although time has altered the colours of both source and watercolour, we see that Morrice faithfully copied his model, except for the lamppost: too modern? However, he greatly simplified all the forms; the road, at once receding and flat, almost merges with the pale sky. The oil version reprises the composition exactly; if the dark green grass areas are more stylized, the Canadian artist did not follow Gauguin all the way: in the canvas, the road has regained its muddy earth aspect from the postcard, and the sky, although of one general pearly tone, is very textured. But the little boy still raises his arm...

Morrice exercised more freedom when he transposed his source postcard to “The Pond” watercolour; the addition of two figures modify the scale of the composition, transforming the pool formed by the bend of a small, lazy river into a larger body of water. The colour scheme also shows more freedom, especially the red flower beds on the far bank that complement the dark green foliage; otherwise, all the elements of the photo are found in the watercolour, but much simplified. The same green and red harmony infuses “The Pond” canvas, with one major change: the leafy tree in right centre is now pale green, visually linking the dark water to the sky, which is based on the printed model, but rendered into well-defined, flat colour areas – the postcard was still pinned to the artist’s easel, but Gauguin was now much present in his mind.

Both watercolours are signed in a style Morrice used from 1920 on, but they were not necessarily painted at the same time. “The Pond”, like all other known watercolours by the artist, is on wove paper, better adapted to the medium, but “Village’s” canvas-textured paper is unique: is it the first of the late series? But when, and why, did Morrice start using printed sources?

Before the artist’s chronology was better understood, and more after war trips were discovered (back to Morocco, to Algeria, to Corsica, Sicily and finally Tunis), most dealers located the late “West Indian” works in Trinidad, an island Morrice visited in 1921; all these late trips are well documented by drawings in Morrice’s sketchbooks (MMFA). But none of the works – watercolours or pochades – based on the printed sources we found so far are related to any such drawing. They were probably not painted in the lands they represent, but in France, where he lived since 1890.

Some of these are images from British war magazines, obviously related to his mural commission (Ottawa, Canadian Museum of War). The oil sketches he brought back from Picardy were not enough; some war sketches are directly lifted from the magazine illustrations, but others show more artistic freedom, like the sun added in Morrice’s only war watercolour, “Moving Up at Sunrise” (MMFA, from the Illustrated War News, 27 March 1918).

This artwork’s style is somewhat freer than “Village Street”, suggesting a slightly earlier date for our two watercolours, if not for their related canvases. The war, and perhaps illness, kept Morrice mostly in Paris, possibly looking around his studio for ideas. A reluctant “armchair traveller” perhaps, but always eager to explore new ways of translating his delicate visions.

We extend our thanks to Lucie Dorais, Canadian art historian and author of “J.W. Morrice” (National Gallery of Canada, 1985), for contributing the preceding essay for lots 32 and 33.

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James Wilson Morrice
(1865 - 1924) RCA

James Wilson Morrice, Canadian painter, was born in Montreal in 1865. Abandoning law, he went to Paris where he studied painting. He visited Venice, Trinidad, Tunis, and periodically returned to Canada. Admired for his subtle colouring and delicate rendering of landscapes, Morrice greatly influenced younger Canadian artists.