Lot #101

Homer Watson
Country Road, Stormy Day

oil on board
signed and dated 1895 or 1900 lower right
18 x 24.25 ins ( 45.7 x 61.6 cms )

Auction Estimate: $15,000.00$10,000.00 - $15,000.00

Price Realized $18,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Provenance:
Andrew Wilson, Montreal, by 1902, until at least 1938
Laing Galleries, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, January 1966
Exhibited:
“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. 50
“Homer Watson: Works from Private and Public Collections”, Homer Watson House & Gallery, Kitchener, 19 March‒3 May 1998
“The Landscapes of Homer Watson: A Particular Time and Place”, Homer Watson House & Gallery, Kitchener, 11 June‒20 August 2000
“Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography. American and Canadian Landscapes 1860‒1918”, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; travelling to Vancouver Art Gallery, 18 June 2009‒17 January 2010
“24th Annual Homer Watson Exhibition: Streaming Skies”, Homer Watson House & Gallery, Kitchener, 14 June-17 August 2014
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery; travelling to Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 29 October 2015‒25 September 2016
Literature:
Katherine Hale, ‘The Art of Homer Watson’, “The Canadian Magazine 20”, December 1902, reproduced page 139
Muriel Miller, “Homer Watson: The Man of Doon”, Toronto, 1938, page 142 (misdated as 1903)
‘Two Canadian Painters’, “The Auctioneer 9:3”, March 1967, reproduced page 3
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 50, reproduced page 54
Gerald Noonan, “Refining the Real Canada: Homer Watson’s Spiritual Landscape”, Waterloo, 1997, page 262
Hilliard T. Goldfarb, “Expanding Horizons: Painting and Photography. American and Canadian Landscapes 1860‒1918”, Montreal, 2009, reproduced page 195
Ian Thom, et. al, “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/ London, 2015, page 46, reproduced page 50
Brian Foss, “Homer Watson: Life and Work” [online publication], Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2018, reproduced page 65
Homer Watson had a lifelong fascination with nature’s drama and power. By the time he was in his twenties he was exploiting massed cloud formations and turbulent skies in major paintings such as “A Coming Storm in the Adirondacks” (1879; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). That same theme is on full display in “Country Road, Stormy Day”. Throughout the canvas the blustery winds make themselves felt in the forceful leftward movement of the tumultuous, scudding clouds and the storm‒tossed trees. That directional thrust that is even echoed by the curving path along which a lone figure drives a horse‒drawn wagon. This sweeping movement, a regular aspect of Watson’s work from the mid‒1880s onward, was in line with his conviction that mature artists should not (as he phrased it in a 1900 lecture) “insult the intelligence” of viewers by getting caught up in distracting detail at the expense of strong, unifying movement that conveyed nature’s raw majesty.

“Country Road, Stormy Day” also exemplifies two other qualities that enhance Watson’s evocation of nature’s vitality and volatility. One‒first seen in the second half of the 1880s‒is the use of impasto that stresses the sheer physicality of the depicted scene. The second is Watson’s frequent limiting of his palette to a narrow range of earthy colours such as those that dominate “Country Road, Stormy Day” and that, he felt, conveyed nature’s underlying power far better than Impressionism’s highly saturated tones. In June 1888 the Toronto art dealer John Payne, having recently received a shipment of such paintings from Watson, wrote to express his admiration of the artist’s richly sombre colours, vigorous paint application, and compellingly expressed breadth of mood (Homer Watson fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library & Archives).

We extend our thanks to Brian Foss, Carleton University Professor of Art & Architectural History, and co‒curator of “1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group” for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Homer Ransford Watson
(1855 - 1936) OSA, PRCA

Homer Watson was born into a family of modest means. His father, Ransford, operated a woollen mill. By his own admission, Homer was a poor student who preferred sketching to school lessons. A dreamer too, he was reported to have arranged his food on his dinner plate in such a way as to create images. The Watsons fell on hard times when Ransford died in 1861. Some years later, when he was only in grade 6, Homer was forced to leave school to help support the family. Along with his elder brother, Jude Nathan, he found a job in a brickyard. Tragedy struck again when Jude was killed in an accident there in 1867. The deaths affected Homer profoundly and he sought comfort in nature. He could often be found walking in the Grand River valley near his home, lost in reverie. He would subsequently say that these wanderings had had “a dream-like effect” on him and produced romantic notions of his environs. His mystical view of nature and his interest in the spirit world likely took root at this time. In later life he would host regular seances in his home for guests, who included fellow artist Carl Henry Ahrens and Liberal politician William Lyon Mackenzie King*.

At age 15 Homer was given some oil paints by an aunt and set about using them. With no money for formal instruction, he learned by copying pictures in books. A small inheritance from his paternal grandfather gave him the means to move to Toronto in 1874 for a year of study. “I did not know enough to have Paris or Rome in mind,” he would write to a friend. “I felt Toronto had all I needed.” Unable to afford classes, he put up his easel in the foyer of the Normal School. There he copied the reproductions of old-master paintings on display. He also came to know landscapists Henri Perré*, Lucius Richard O’Brien*, and John Arthur Fraser*. In 1876 he was able to spend some months in New York State, where he discovered the Hudson River School of painters. When his funds were exhausted, Watson returned to Doon in 1877 and committed himself to art. As he later wrote, “I obeyed then certain desires which altogether possessed me into fixing in some palpable degree the infinite beauties that emanate from the great mystery of the sky and land.… I became a painter.”

His first major work, The death of Elaine (1877), was inspired by Tennyson’s poem “Lancelot and Elaine.” The work shows the strong influence of the British Romantic School. Elaine would remain one of his few figure studies. The pastoral landscapes in and around Doon – the woodlands, rushing streams, watermills, and grazing cattle – became his predominant subject matter. In the words of curator Darlene Kerr, “Homer Ransford Watson … quite simply loved the woods. It was his sanctum sanctorum, or sacred place.” Watson would later be active in a campaign to conserve an expanse of woodland near his home, known since 1943 as Homer Watson Memorial Park.

In 1878 Watson joined the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA) as a draftsman and designer, and he first exhibited professionally at its annual show that year. The reception from critics was favourable, and shortly afterwards he was elected to the OSA as a painter. More recognition was to follow. In 1880 Governor General Lord Lorne [Campbell*] and his wife, Princess Louise, daughter of Queen Victoria, attended the first exhibition of the Canadian (soon to become Royal Canadian) Academy of Arts (RCA) in Ottawa. So taken was Lorne by Watson’s Pioneer mill that he purchased it for the queen’s collection. The sale, for $300, was the turning point in Watson’s life. The money allowed him to marry his sweetheart, Roxa Bechtel, in 1881. That year Lorne bought a second Watson painting for the queen, The last day of the drought, and the Doon artist’s fame soared. An associate member of the RCA from 1880, he was made a full member in 1882. In 1882, during a visit to Canada, the Irish poet and critic Oscar Wilde viewed an exhibition that included Watson’s work. He was entranced. Pronouncing Watson to be “the Canadian Constable,” a reference to the British landscape painter John Constable, Wilde commissioned a painting for his own collection. The Watsons celebrated these achievements by purchasing the house in Doon (built for Adam Ferrie*, one of the founders of the village) that would become the painter’s permanent gallery.

His success prompted an extended trip with Roxa to the British Isles in 1887–90, the first of a number of visits. There he sketched and also learned to etch. A journey to France opened his eyes to the Barbizon School of landscape painters, especially the work of Jean-François Millet and Camille Corot. But he was soon anxious to return to Doon, convinced, as he later recalled, that he would find “ample material” for artistic expression “among old associations, among the nooks that wove themselves into my early days, and in a certain village nestling among the hills.”

Watson was prolific after his return to Canada: he exhibited an estimated 174 paintings between 1890 and 1899, with major shows being held in London and New York. Sales were brisk; among the Canadian collectors who patronized him were prominent businessmen such as James Ross*. Generally, his art from this period displays the influence of his years abroad. Some, such as Summer storm (c. 1890) and Evening scene (c. 1894), are darker and moodier than his previous works. Commentators have also pointed to his use of broader brushstrokes and thicker paint, a greater concern with colour and light, and more freedom of expression. The flood gate (c. 1900–1) was the painting that contemporaries, and Watson himself, called his masterpiece. It was exhibited to great acclaim at a show in Glasgow. The painting would be acquired for the National Gallery of Canada in 1925 by director Eric Brown.

The 20th century began auspiciously for him when he won a gold medal at the Pan American Exposition in Buffalo, N.Y., in 1901 (one of several international awards he received over the years). In 1907, along with Edmund Montague Morris*, Albert Curtis Williamson*, and others, he was a founding member of the Canadian Art Club. He served as its first president until 1913, when he was succeeded by his friend Horatio Walker. In 1914 he became vice-president of the RCA, under William Brymner*. After war was declared that August, he was commissioned by the minister of militia and defence, Samuel Hughes*, to paint the camp of the Canadian Expeditionary Force in Valcartier, Que. Watson was elected president of the RCA in 1918, but he withdrew from public life four years later, in part because of increasing deafness.

By 1910 Watson’s work had begun to receive more intense scrutiny as newer talents sought to define the Canadian landscape. Sales of his paintings started to decline. With the formation in 1920 of the Group of Seven, “the Canadian Constable” became an anachronism. The so-called real and raw Canada, as portrayed in the radical canvases of Arthur Lismer*, Alexander Young Jackson*, Lawren Stewart Harris*, and their associates, increasingly dominated the country’s art world. Sensing the shift in the wind, Watson struggled to adapt. His style became more Impressionistic as he sought to work out his own modernism, which did not, he said, “lend itself to the elimination of the pictorial.” Yet most art historians view his paintings from 1920 on as weaker efforts. The stock-market crash of 1929 left Watson virtually penniless. Two years later he transferred ownership of his unsold works to the Waterloo Trust and Savings Company in exchange for monthly living expenses. He continued to paint, but his financial situation remained difficult. “I am in rather tight straits for want of money,” he wrote to his patron James Livingston* in 1933. “The reason is the winter has been altogether a knock-out for no one could come as expected to buy.”

Homer Watson died in 1936 at the age of 81, just a month before he was awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of Western Ontario in London. His sister Phoebe Amelia, also an artist, who had moved in with him and his daughter after Roxa died, lived in the Watson home until her death in 1947. The following year the Doon School of Fine Arts was established in the house; it ran until 1966, drawing such distinguished teachers as Frederick Horsman Varley* and Carl Fellman Schaefer*. In 1980 the property was designated a national historic site. Purchased by the City of Kitchener, it opened a year later as the Homer Watson House and Gallery.

Written by Nancy Silcox (Source: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/watson_homer_ransford_16E.html)