Artwork by James Wilson Morrice,  Study for “Neige, Canada”

J.W. Morrice
Study for “Neige, Canada”

oil on board
signed lower left
9.25 x 13 ins ( 23.5 x 33 cms )

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

Price Realized $408,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Private Collection, Manitoba
In January 1890, freshly called to the Ontario Bar to please his father, young J.W. Morrice settled in Paris to please himself, by becoming a professional painter. From there he travelled Europe in search of fresh motifs, eventually crossing the Mediterranean to North Africa and the Atlantic to the West Indies. But he never forgot his family and his homeland, which he visited periodically, usually around Christmas. The winter canvases he painted back in Paris are much sought after, and many are already in public or corporate collections. The appearance of “Neige, Canada/Snow, Canada”, which is offered in a separate sale is exceptional; its pairing with its recently discovered preparatory sketch is unique, a first for Morrice!

Morrice spent a lot of time over the composition of his canvas, and we recognize it in the sketch: the grey sky, the falling snow and the white ground. With some significant differences: the house, closer to the foreground, has two floors and a mansard roof; there is no fence and no woodpile, but a smaller building on the left horizon; less importantly, the horse blanket is dark green, and the sled is all yellow. A “ghost” in the upper left of the canvas suggest that Morrice had first placed the big house, with its mansard roof, on the left and reversed, but discarded it. After perhaps trying it first on the right as in the sketch. In the end he covered everything in uniform grey paint and painted a smaller house which he prolonged by a sloping roof and a woodpile.

A small watercolour relates directly to this pair, quickly drawn, thinly coloured, and completed by more pencil marks (“Canadian Winter”, Corporate Collection, Stellarton N.S.). Its composition is the same as the sketch, but with minor differences: the blanket is dark red and white, the sled is pale green; and a big one: the sky is pale blue‒green, and a long trail of smoke emerges from the small house at left. First idea, or trial for a different colour scheme before starting the canvas? If Morrice adopted the red blanket and, partially, the green sled, he discarded the pale blue‒green sky and the too anecdotal smoke trail, resulting in a more modern, “art for art’s sake” composition.

This study, and the canvas, cannot be linked to any known trip home, nor to any sketch or drawing besides the watercolour, itself also quite unique (it is painted on an envelope, not in a sketchbook). Its thinly painted sky relates to Morrice’s Montreal and Quebec panels of early 1906, and to other European sketches of that period, but the rest does not convey the sense of hurry that characterize the Canadian panels, painted out in the cold. And Morrice never used that large format in Canada, although he did in Marseille and Venice, in the summer of 1904, and later in Tangier and elsewhere. Some of these Venetian sketches are stamped by a local maker, and the panel for our sketch, which is not stamped, could also be Venetian. But also Parisian, like another Quebec sketch of the same size and similar palette (Private Collection), stamped “A. Moreaux, 106 Boul. Montparnasse, Paris”, one of Morrice’s colour man in Paris.

Homesickness may have played a role, plus the desire to offer a fresh subject to the Parisian public. We ignore Morrice’s whereabouts between August 1904 (in Venice) and February 1905 (in Paris), but a trip home would have left a trace, at least on a ship’s manifest. Not a problem: he had dozens of painted panels lying around, plus his sketchbooks. In 1907, faced with the same desire to exhibit Quebec subjects at the Société Nationale but unable to come home, he used drawings and sketches from his 1906 visit; and to create his famous “Ferry, Quebec”, he went back to a sketchbook and panels dating from his long stay in the winter of 1896‒97. Many pages of this early sketchbook (Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada) are studies of sleds and their drivers gliding on a snowy ground, others depict typical rural houses. Enough to feed the artist’s imagination when he was putting together his entries for the 1905 Société Nationale which, in the end, did not include “Neige, Canada”. The canvas was forgotten until 1912, when Morrice sent it to the Autumn Salon of London’s Goupil Gallery, hoping for a sale, which did happen. As for the sketch, he might have given it to a friend, since it is signed, and was not found in his studio after is death (no studio stamp).

This lengthy discussion exemplifies the complexities of properly cataloguing the works of an artist who travelled often and far in search of fresh motifs but could elaborate a new composition far away from its source; he never stayed long in one place, never dated anything, and rarely gave titles to his works.

We extend our thanks to Lucie Dorais, Canadian art historian and author of J.W. Morrice (National Gallery of Canada, 1985), for researching this artwork and contributing the preceding essay.

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James Wilson Morrice
(1865 - 1924) RCA

Born in Montreal to a prominent family of textile merchants, Morrice spent most of his life abroad, much of it in Paris. He had gone there to enrol in the Academie Julian, the best-known of the private art schools that lured dozens of young Canadian artists to cross the ocean with the promise of technical proficiency and stylistic sophistication. Soon Morrice was studying with the Barbizon painter Henri Harpignies and looking intently at the pictures of the cutting-edge Nabis members. Affable and gregarious, Morrice was well liked in Paris among the local and emigre vanguard, notably his friends the great Henri Matisse and the influential American painter Robert Henri. He did well, showing in the most prestigious exhibitions of new art, including the Salons, and selling to discerning European collections of the highest rank. If he is remembered mostly in Canada today, it may be because Canadian collectors repatriated most of his pictures after his death, leaving Europeans with little to go on. He had been careful to maintain a reputation at home, showing here regularly and returning frequently for Christmas, which would explain why most of his Canadian pictures are winter scenes. Young Canadian artists held him in considerable esteem during his lifetime for his fearless modernism and his success in Europe. A stylistically hybrid artist, Morrice combined a lush and often dusky Post-Impressionist tone with nonchalant brushwork of a plumb assuredness, softening the blunt structures of his Fauvist friends. What results are paintings as complicated as they are straightforward and often redolent with suppressed emotion. Morrice tends to smallish pictures that draw you in, only to surprise you by their resolute diffidence. Irresistible and remote, his pictures ask for intimacy but keep their distance, like nostalgia, like longing. Morrice ran with a fast crowd of glittering cosmopolitans. Alcoholism got the better of him by the end of his fifties; his health ultimately failed while in North Africa where he had painted with Matisse and where he died at fifty-eight.

Source: National Gallery of Canada