Artwork by James Edward Hervey MacDonald,  Larches, Mountain Lake

J.E.H. MacDonald
Larches, Mountain Lake

oil on board
signed and dated “Sept. 13, 1929” lower right; signed and titled (twice) on the reverse
8.5 x 10.5 ins ( 21.6 x 26.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $70,000.00$50,000.00 - $70,000.00

Price Realized $57,600.00
Sale date: June 9th 2021

Private Collection, Toronto
Private Collection, Ontario
Masters Gallery, Calgary
Private Collection, Vancouver
1929 was J.E.H. MacDonald’s sixth visit to the Lake O’Hara region of Yoho National Park, British Columbia, in the Rocky Mountains of western Canada. He was obsessed with the scenery there, and that year, his attention was taken by the larch trees. He arrived in early September (as we know from a sketch painted on the 5th) to find the larches beginning to turn. The weather conditions that fall, his familiarity with the trails and meadows, and his utter delight in being back in a place he so loved, combined to give us an artistic survey of the Lyall’s Larch in their fullest range of fine autumnal glory.

These uniquely charming, deciduous conifers have leaf-like needles that change colour in the fall. In MacDonald’s 1929 paintings we see in them dancing from shades of green through to gold, charting the transition of their bright, forest green leaves from their summer colours through an intense chartreuse green, then a pale lime green that then morphs into a soft buttery yellow, and finally ripens to a saffron orange over the winter as the four-sided leaves dry out and fall. Sprinkled on the early snow, or as seen in this work against the blue-green waters of McArthur Lake and the heath-crusted ground, they are a delightful and attractive colour contract in the landscape. MacDonald further accentuates these two solitary trees by bathing them in sunlight that electrifies their colours and heightens our focus on them. They are actors, posing at centre stage. He underlines this focus by capturing the foreground tree’s deeply cast shadow in a rich brown tinged with purple that is not only reminiscent of the greyish-purple of larch bark, but repeated in the shadow on the rock face on the far side of the lake, drawing our eye up to the mountain face. MacDonald was a superb colourist who used a minimal palette of carefully chosen hues in a simple composition. The purple accents in “Larches, Mountain Lake” serve to intensify the colour of the larches, and together with his calligraphic brushwork, and stage-like view, create a scene that is enlivened and bright. One can almost feel the breeze tousling the supple branches of these two young larch trees.

MacDonald was not only visually taken by these unique trees, he also wrote about them in his journals, even composing poems, odes to their kaleidoscopic fall colour. In his 1924 lecture “A Glimpse of the West”, delivered to his students at the Ontario College of Art and published that November in “The Canadian Bookman”, he wrote of his affection of the O’Hara landscape, singling out the larch trees, “...and there are the trees, the spruce and the balsam and the plumy Lyall’s Larch. This last especially a beautiful colour note in my memory as it began to get the gold of autumn on it before I came away, and that, with the delicate purple grey of the branches mingling with it made a dream tree of paradise.” In the fall of 1928, he wrote a poem in his journal, describing the advance of fall colour up from the prairies to the mountains:

“But yesterday the sleety wind
Hissed in the mountains larch
And now the yellow prairie spreads
The sheaves in endless march”

The turn of the larches in the Canadian Rockies is a visually delightful time, one that MacDonald was harmoniously in tune with, one that he painted and wrote of often – a recurring character in his Lake O’Hara stories. The shoreline of McArthur Lake, where these two trees are growing in the sketch, is today dotted with older, larger, specimens and their younger offspring. It is likely that among them, gnarled and wizened and shaped by the weather, stand these two same trees, now almost a century older.

We extend our thanks to Lisa Christensen, Canadian art academic and the author of four award-winning books on Canadian art, for contributing the preceding essay.

Share this item with your friends

James Edward Hervey MacDonald
(1873 - 1932) Group of Seven, OSA, RCA

J.E.H. MacDonald was born in Durham, England in 1873 of Canadian parents. He took evening art classes at the Hamilton Art School as a teenager, before relocating to Toronto. In Toronto, he studied at the Central Ontario School of Art. From 1894, he worked as a graphic designer at Grip Ltd. In 1903, he sailed for England and joined Carlton Studios, a London graphic firm. On his return to Canada in 1907 he rejoined Grip and began to paint the landscape near Toronto. Around this time, Tom Thomson joined the Grip staff. Frank H. Johnston joined a short time later. These artists found that they had much in common and began going on sketching trips as a group. In 1910, he exhibited for the first time at the Royal Canadian Academy. By 1912, all the original members of the Group of Seven had met and were sketching quite regularly together. MacDonald was devastated by the accidental drowning of Tom Thomson in 1917. He designed a brass plaque to Thomson's memory which was mounted to a cairn erected at Canoe Lake. The first official Group of Seven exhibition took place in May of 1920. MacDonald accepted a teaching position at the Ontario College of Art in 1921 and was appointed as principal in 1929. He continued to go on painting trips, but his teaching responsibilities sapped his energies and he did few large canvases during this time. He died in Toronto in 1932.