Artwork by James Wilson Morrice,  Neige, Canada (Snow, Canada) (circa 1905)

J.W. Morrice
Neige, Canada (Snow, Canada) (circa 1905)

oil on canvas
signed lower right; inscribed “Neige, Canada” on the lower stretcher bar
18 x 25.75 ins ( 45.7 x 65.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $600,000.00$400,000.00 - $600,000.00

Price Realized $1,260,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Goupil Gallery, Fall 1912
F.C. Mathews & Co., London Solicitors
Frederick C. Shorey, Montreal, early 1914
By descent to Private Collection, United States
Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal as “Hauling Wood, Quebec”
Acquired by the present Private Collection, November 1987
“Autumn Salon”, Goupil Gallery, London, U.K., October‒December 1912, no. 68, as Snow, Canada on sale for £84 (sold)
“Catalogue of Paintings by J.W. Morrice, R.C.A.”, The Arts Club, Montreal, 12 March 1914, no. 16 as “A Winter Scene‒Canada” (Loaned by F.C. Shorey)
“Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by the late James W. Morrice, R.C.A.”, Art Association of Montreal, 16 January‒15 February 1925, no. 103 as “Waiting” (Loaned by F.C. Shorey)
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 74 as “Snow, Canada”
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016 as Snow, Canada
“Highlights from ‘Embracing Canada’,” Annual Loan Exhibition, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 22 October–5 November, 2016 as “Neige, Canada”
“The Studio”, vol. 57, London, U.K., December 1912, reproduced page 241 as “Snow, Canada” (at Goupil Gallery). Same article appeared in “The International Studio”, New York, January 1913
The following publications mention J.W. Morrice, “Snow, Canada” from the Autumn Salon, Goupil Gallery, London, U.K., October‒December 1912:
“Manchester Courier” (UK), 25 Oct., page 6; “The Standard” (London UK), 28 Oct., page 5; “Der Cicerone” (Leipzig, Germany), October, page 865; “The Times” (London UK), 5 Nov., page 12; “The Guardian” (Manchester UK), 21 Nov., page 8; “The Studio” (London UK), December, and “The International Studio” (New York), January 1913, page 238; “The Times” review was largely paraphrased by Ellis Morel in the “Manitoba Free Press”, 30 Nov., page 54, re‒published in early 1913 in the same paper, plus the “Regina Leader‒Post”, and the “Montreal Star”
A.H.S. Gillson, ‘James W. Morrice ‒ Canadian Painter’, “Canadian Forum”, vol. 5 no. 57, June 1925, page 272
Donald W. Buchanan, “James Wilson Morrice: a biography”, Toronto, 1936; ‘Catalogue Raisonné’ page 155 as “Hauling Wood, Quebec”; info copied by Kathleen Daly Pepper, James Wilson Morrice, Toronto, 1966, page 85 ‘A Selected List of Paintings’
Nicole Cloutier, “James Wilson Morrice, 1865‒1924”, Montreal, 1985, page 45 ‘Chronology’, page 47 ‘Exhibitions’, page 48 Arts Club 1914
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 47, reproduced page 53
Michèle Grandbois, ‘Five Quebec Landscape Painters, in Search of Spirituality and Identity’, in Ian Thom, et al., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, page 147
Charles C.Hill, “The Peter & Joanne Brown Collection”, Heffel Fine Art Auction House, Toronto, 23 November 2016, reproduced page 103, no. 263 “The Wood‒Pile, Sainte‒Anne‒de‒Beaupré”
Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, “Highlights from ‘Embracing Canada’,” Montreal, 2016, reproduced page 8 as “Neige, Canada”
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” on the market is exceptional; its pairing with its recently discovered preparatory sketch is unique, a first for Morrice!

In a grey, but very luminous landscape, a horse and its sled are silently parked, waiting for someone to load the wood, take the reins and leave the scene; until then, a large blanket keeps the animal warm. The time of day is hard to tell: the light is uniform, but not dark; tiny snowflakes, touches of pale green and light yellow, and of course the snowed over areas illuminate everything. The fence, not quite horizontal, keeps everything in place over a loose, invisible grid. The top halves are not equal, the house and woodpile at right opposed by the empty sky at left, where the softly drawn horizon marks the horizontal divide; the top left quadrant is however prevented from “sinking in” by its deeper shade of grey. Our eye, quickly drawn to the ridge of the white roof, is soon guided back, through the slanted roof and the woodpile, to a black, otherwise purposeless patch near the centre, forcing it to turn 90 degrees down the sled, then diagonally up along its skate and shaft; until it meets the patient horse in the eye... hidden by a blinder. Obviously, Morrice spent a lot of time over this composition.

We recognize his composition 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 study of the canvas, even in reproductions (including the 1912 one), reveals a “ghost” in the left sky, where two thick, straight forms meet up near the top, the right one prolonged
by a curved form: Morrice had 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; still not happy, he enlarged it by extending its roof over the woodpile. It, and the fence, were perhaps added at that point, when the composition was completed with a fresh layer of nearly transparent white paint on the ground.

A small watercolour relates directly to this pair, quickly drawn, thinly coloured, and completed by more pencil marks (”Canadian Winter”, 14 x 16 cm, 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.

Rather strangely, this beautiful canvas did not debut in Paris; its appearance in London, in the 1912 Autumn Salon of the Goupil Gallery, might be its first. From 1906, Morrice often sent slightly older paintings to the British exhibition‒sale, still keeping his most recent work for Paris. That same Fall, the Salon d’Automne was showing his first Moroccan canvases, while the Parisian art world was already fully exposed to Cubism. Meanwhile, across the Channel, the anonymous Times reviewer termed the Goupil Salon avant‒garde, singling out Morrice’s “Snow, Canada” as “the most remarkable” among the 300 works in the show; and “The Studio” reproduced it, declaring it a “masterly piece”. Other reviews saluted the painting’s beauty and serenity, and it was sold before the end of the exhibition, as Morrice noted besides a list of his Goupil entries (”Sketchbook #17”, Museum of Fine Arts, 1912‒13, page 2).

Unlike other Quebec canvases, “Snow, Canada” and its study 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). The closest canvas, in terms of composition and atmosphere, is “Quai des Grands‒Augustins (neige)” in the Thomson Collection at the AGO (19 x 28.75 in), a rare diagonal view of the Quai des Orfèvres across the Seine from below Morrice’s apartment. Both compositions share a grey sky at left, buildings at right, a strong nearly horizontal element near the center (fence here, parapet there), and a more or less snowy foreground, depending on the locale. They are both painted thinly but very uniformly over a dark grey primer; were they painted side by side? The French subject debuted in April 1905 at the Salon de la Société Nationale; did Morrice also plan to send “Neige, Canada” to that show, pairing his two loves, “Mon pays et Paris”? And could he have spent too much time working on it, missing the deadline? Was the sketch really “preparatory”, or brought over from Canada?

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”, Morrice’s colour man ca. 1896. This second sketch cannot be dated easily; and the canvas that Morrice eventually derived from it, translated into a more contemporary vision and palette, was painted after 1920: the beautiful “Québec Farmhouse” (MMFA), his last known Canadian work... probably elaborated entirely in Paris.

Homesickness may have played a role, as it could have for “Snow, Canada” and its preparatory sketch, 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, and it is perhaps then that Morrice added the pencil or crayon accents on the sled, a technique he did not really use before 1910.

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. If he had to for an exhibition, he would use a generic one, such as “Effet de neige” (French or Canadian) or the more specific “Snow, Canada”, a title used for other paintings of his homeland, but now firmly attached to the work offered here.

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.
Internationally celebrated artist James Wilson Morrice’s rare canvas ‘Neige, Canada (Snow Canada)” (circa 1905) doubled the pre-sale estimate selling for $1.26 million in its auction debut on December 1st, 2022. The accompanying sketch for the painting, Study for “Neige, Canada” sold for six times the estimate at $408,000.

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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