Artwork by James Wilson Morrice,  À Venise (Study for “Red Houses, Venice”)

J.W. Morrice
À Venise (Study for “Red Houses, Venice”)

oil on wood panel
signed lower left; titled and inscribed “J.W. Morrice”, “Bordeaux”, “chez M. Guichardaz 29 Rue T. Dragon”, “G. Lege...” on the reverse; stamped “Emilio Aikelin/Via 22 Marzo N. 2578/Venezia” (inversed) on the reverse; inscribed “Morrice. 2.” on a P. Ferret label on the reverse (stamped faintly “Salon de Bordeaux 1911”
13 x 9.25 ins ( 33 x 23.5 cms )

Auction Estimate: $120,000.00$90,000.00 - $120,000.00

Price Realized $312,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

G. Léger, France (?)
Purchased in France by a woman from Kent, England
Sotheby’s, auction, Toronto, 11 May 1994, lot 95
Private Collection
Possibly “Salon d’Automne, 6e Exposition”, Grand Palais, Paris, France, 1 October‒8 November 1908, no. 1485 as “À Venise”
“59e Exposition de la Société des Amis des Arts de Bordeaux,” Terrasse du Jardin‒Public, Bordeaux, France, 4 February‒April 1911, no. 421 as “Maisons rouges à Venise”
“Exposition de la Société Nouvelle sous la présidence d'Auguste Rodin”, Galerie Georges Petit, Paris, France, 18 March‒5 April 1914, no. 59 as “La Maison rouge, Venise”
“Summer Exhibition”, Goupil Gallery, London, U.K., June‒July 1914, no. 38 as “The Red House, Venice”
“Collectors’ Treasures II/Trésors des collectionneurs II”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 24 October‒7 November 2020, no. 24 as “Old House, Venice”
J.W. Morrice, “Sketchbook #6”, page 63 “Red House W. Leger/33 x 24/ No 239", over a sketch of the corner of its frame (same as today); page 62 represents the grouping of Morrice’s entries at the 1914 exhibition of the Société Nouvelle. Both pages drawn at the opening, where he was seen by “Antoinette”
Roger Marx, ‘Le vernissage du Salon d'Automne’, “Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité”, Paris, 10 October 1908, page 327 (mentions “Venise”‒if it is this Study)
Louis Vauxcelles, ‘Expositions diverses’, “Gil Blas” (Paris), 27 March 1914, page 4 "coloriste libre et savoureux."
Louis Hautecoeur, ‘La 'Société Nouvelle' (Galerie Georges Petit)’, “Chronique des Arts et de la Curiosité” (Paris), 28 March 1914, page 99 Antoinette, ‘Causerie de Paris’, “The Gazette” (Montreal), 1 April 1914, page 2 "Among the pictures which attracted the most attention... a Venetian house with an exquisite note of color." (She saw Morrice there, just back from Tunis.)
Special correspondant [Antoinette], ‘Our Paris Letter‒Société Nouvelle’, “The Montreal Star”, 11 April 1914, page 24 mentions "a Venetian study”
John O’Brian, ‘Morrice. O'Conor, Gauguin, Bonnard et Vuillard’, “Revue de l’Université de Moncton”, 15 April-December 1982, pages 9-34
Nhajjar, “Campo San Vidal”, veniceblog/2006/09/index.html, September 2006
J.W. Morrice visited Venice at least seven times between 1894 and 1907, often for weeks at a time. The paintings he brought back to his Paris studio illustrate his artistic development during that period: early small pochades, then beautiful Impressionist studies of facades at sunset on the Grand Canal, and finally the last, almost Fauve burst of oranges and turquoises under blue skies. With its vivid red and yellow, this painting belongs to that last period, probably painted during a visit in the Fall of 1906.

Art historian John O’Brian once compared the “Red Houses” canvas (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), an enlarged version of this “Study”, to the well-known “Venice at the Golden Hour” in the same museum, still influenced by Whistler and Impressionism; his comments also apply to their respective studies. That for “Golden Hour” (also MMFA) is based on a grid pushed back by the canal at bottom, reducing the figures on the opposite riva to silhouettes; everything is getting darker under the failing light. Beside it, the Study for “Red Houses” bursts with sun and colour, and there is no water in sight. The two yellow ochre bands, pavement and church, with their complementary patch of dark blue sky, are all on the picture plane, and the black shawls of the popolane are there too. The grid, less rigid, is broken by the shadow on the facade; the composition is cropped more tightly, and not only at the top; a narrow canal at left is only hinted at, and there is no clue that an enclosed garden, with tall cypresses, borders the space on the right.

O’Brian rightly attributes these differences, especially the use of colour, to Morrice’s discovery of Gauguin. Another influence was also at work, that of the “Fauves”, whose pure colours and flat surfaces had shocked the critics of the 1905 Salon d’Automne; indeed, the vivid green shutters on the pure red wall could have been painted by Henri Matisse. If the Golden Hour panel is still a “sketch”, our Study, slightly larger in format, is not. It is so finished that it was probably not painted on the motif, but in the comfort of a studio or hotel room, based on drawings in a sketchbook; unfortunately, none has survived from this 1906 trip. Also, there was (and still is) no welcoming caffè terrace on small Campo San Vidal, the subject of this painting; is it why it did not inspire any other artist before him?

The site is particularly attractive in mid-afternoon, as here; and it is visible to anyone navigating on the Grand Canal or descending from the Accademia Bridge. But the boats don’t stop, and neither do the pedestrians hurrying towards the large Campo Santo Stefano behind the church, or San Marco further away. “A place to be rushed through, not savored. An artery.”

The humble housings, painted “Venetian Red”, are attached to the Church of San Vidal; the white form in the center of the painting is a public well. It is still there, and comparison with a rare 1899 photograph of the site (Alinari) shows that Morrice was faithful to its 1906 aspect: the chimney’s tall white shaft was already gone, but its flue facing was still attached to the facade (it will disappear soon after); the altana on the roof at left, beautifully adorned with flowers, and the balcony below it, are still extent.

On the back of the panel, the doubly underlined “Bordeaux” and the Ferret shipping label confirm the exhibition of the painting in 1911, together with an unidentified “Plage”; the title, “Maisons rouges à Venise”, later also given to the canvas, was coined there, since “À Venise” was hidden. Written with a different pencil, and followed by the artist’s name and the return address of his colour-man, the longer inscription suggests an earlier exhibition.

We first find the title “À Venise” in the catalogue of the 1908 Salon d’Automne; since the 1965 MMFA Morrice retrospective, is identified with the canvas (cat. no. 57), although there is no corresponding information on its back. Furthermore, in the Fall of 1912, Morrice listed “Venice, red house. (unfinished)” among pictures in his studio (MMFA, Sketchbook #17, page 7); it cannot be our “Study”, exhibited the year before. Morrice and Matisse were both on the painting jury of the 1908 Salon d’Automne, and the Canadian, with “À Venise”, might have intended to make his own “Fauve” statement; if so, we think that the panel better fits this role.

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.

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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