Artwork by Jean Albert McEwen,  Le baiser

Jean McEwen
Le baiser

oil on canvas
signed, titled and inscribed “aujourd’hui 8 julliet 1994” on the reverse
60 x 39.25 ins ( 152.4 x 99.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$25,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $22,000.00
Sale date: December 3rd 2020

Waddington and Gorce Inc., Montreal
Art Sales and Rental Gallery, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Private Collection, Montreal
Ian McGillis, ‘Discovered Again: MMFA Honours Jean McEwen 20 Years After His Death’, “Montreal Gazette”, September 27, 2019
Roald Nasgaard, “Abstract Painting in Canada”, Vancouver/Toronto, 2007, pages 174-78
Roald Nasgaard and Ray Ellenwood, “The Automatiste Revolution”, Markham, 2009, pages 82-85
Fernande Saint-Martin, “McEwen, 1953-73”, Musée d’Art Contemporain, Montreal, 1973, unpaginated
A self-taught artist, Jean McEwen’s initial and primary career for many years was in pharmaceuticals. In 1961, after receiving a grant from the Canada Council for the Arts, he reduced his hours spent at the pharmacy to focus on painting. He divided his time between the two careers until the mid 1970s. As with many autodidacts he was resistant to labels being applied to his work, once saying, “There are two ways to judge a painting. One is based on criteria and theories of art. The second is based on the sensations we get before a picture. I paint the second way.”

After achieving significant success in the art world, McEwen spent much of his mature career teaching Visual Arts. He was a professor at Concordia University from 1982 to 1994. The large oil on canvas “Le baiser” was completed during his last year in this position. This composition emphasizes the visual effects of space and edges. The two central vertical bands touch each other ever so gently in the middle, with glimpses of the white ground visible behind them - perhaps alluding to the painting’s title, translating to ‘The Kiss’. These slightly irregular shapes meet in an imperfect way, putting the focus of the work on this central line. The ochre areas on the right and left edges of the composition seem to suggest that they would continue further if they were not cut off by the borders of the canvas.

Fernande Saint-Martin’s argument that McEwen “repeatedly stresses that what is important to him is the establishment of chromatic juxtapositions so extreme and rich, that they impose themselves on the spectator. Colour is to McEwen a mutable and expressive element to which he can never refer in terms of single pigments: he tends to talk of ‘the yellows’ or ‘the purples’ in the plural, suggesting thereby the emotional impact and symphonic potential of colour in concert.” The colour palette of “Le baiser” fits the author’s description, as the central shapes can only be loosely categorized as red, for they are a complex mixture of brown, red, orange and yellow pigments.

Also on the subject of Jean McEwen’s use of colour, Roald Nasgaard compares the enchanting luminosity of the artist’s work, including the glowing red of “Le baiser”, to that of the French Impressionists. The author states: “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.”

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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.