Artwork by William Blair Bruce,  Picking Pears in Barbizon (The Pear Orchard), 1882

William B. Bruce
Picking Pears in Barbizon (The Pear Orchard), 1882

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1882 lower left
29.5 x 59 ins ( 74.9 x 149.9 cms )

Auction Estimate: $90,000.00$70,000.00 - $90,000.00

Price Realized $264,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

Sotheby’s, auction, Toronto, 2 October 1974, lot 14
G. Blair Laing Ltd., Toronto
Mr. & Mrs. Kenneth R. Thomson, Toronto
A.K. Prakash & Associates, Inc., Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, August 2005
Royal Academy, London, 1883, no. 1476
“Autumn Exhibition”, Walker Art Gallery, Liverpool, 1883, no. 360
“Forging the Path: The Forerunners (1870-1920)”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 2 October 2010‒30 January 2011 as “Picking Pears, Giverny”
“Into the Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859-1906)”, Art Gallery of Hamilton; traveling to Owens Art Gallery, Sackville, 24 May 2014-5 April 2015, no. 11
Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven, Vancouver Art Gallery; traveling to Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 29 October 2015‒25 September 2016
“Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons 1880‒1930”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; travelling to Kunsthalle der Hypo‒ Kulturstiftung, Munich; Fondation de l’Hermitage, Lausanne; Musée Fabre, Montpellier, 19 July 2019‒3 July 2021, no. 2 as “Picking Pears in Barbizon (The Pear Orchard)”, 1882
Joan Murray, ed., “Letters Home 1859-1906: The Letters of William Blair Bruce”, Moonbeam, Ontario, 1982
Katerina Atanassova, “Forging the Path: The Forerunners (1870-1920)”, Kleinburg, 2010, reproduced page 5 as “Picking Pears, Giverny”
Tobi Bruce, ed., “Into the Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859-1906)”, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2014, pages 70‒71, reproduced page 53
A.K. Prakash, “Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery”, Stuttgart, 2015, plate 7.1
Ian Thom, ed., “Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver/London, 2015, page 60, reproduced page 64
Katerina Atanassova, “Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, 1880- 1930”, Ottawa, 2019, no. 2, pages 236, 248, reproduced page 143
William Blair Bruce studied art privately in his native Hamilton with his father (an amateur watercolourist), with John Herbert Caddy and with Henry Martin. He then briefly attended the Hamilton Art School before traveling in mid-1881 to Liverpool, en route to Paris, where he arrived in July. Like many other North American students, in the French capital he enrolled at the Académie Julian, and there he received instruction from the popular academic painter Tony Robert-Fleury. Bruce stayed at the Académie for only the autumn 1881 session, however, leaving Paris in January 1882 for the more affordable village of Barbizon, just south of the city and on the edge of the Forest of Fontainebleau. Jean-François Millet and Théodore Rousseau, two of the Barbizon School’s most influential figures, had settled in the village in the late 1840s, and by 1882 it was a pilgrimage site for painters attracted by the original Barbizon artists’ naturalistic, unromanticised depictions of the local landscape and rural life. Bruce was enchanted with the area. He remained based in Barbizon for most of the next four years, until the autumn of 1885, when financial desperation and the emotional distress resulting from his failure to establish a major reputation for himself in Paris, sent him back to Hamilton for a year of recuperation.

“The Pear Orchard” is one of Bruce’s earliest large surviving canvases. Its width‒just under five feet‒reflects the recommendation of Louis Welden Hawkins, an English painter who met Bruce in Paris and who in the spring of 1882 gave the ambitious and self-confident Canadian artist guidance on maximizing his chances of success at the Paris Salon. “[H]e advised me to take a couple of ‘six foot’ canvasses [sic] and make a bold strike for notoriety (or whatever you like to call it),” Bruce wrote to his mother and grandmother on March 25th. “He says it is the only way to become famous in a short time....” Hawkins had himself won a coveted Salon medal, and so knew from personal experience how popular large, often sentimental genre paintings of picturesque peasants, winsome children, or juxtaposed elderly and youthful figures were with Salon juries and audiences. Bruce accordingly settled in to paint the kinds of Salon‒friendly pictures that Hawkins had suggested. An important example for him, as for other artists not ready or willing to embrace the more radical techniques of the impressionist artists (who had staged the first of their group exhibitions eight years earlier, in 1874), was Jules Bastien-Lepage, whose immensely popular juste milieu depictions of country dwellers combined a contemporary- looking plein air freshness with a solid academic approach. That combination of qualities would echo through Bruce’s art for the rest of his career.

In the same March 25th letter in which he first mentioned Hawkins, Bruce was jubilant about a recent change in his palette, which “only consists ... of fifteen colors, sometimes perhaps eighteen, and I have discarded almost altogether that former bane of my existence, BLACK PAINT and I now live in a dreamy dreamy world of color.... I have joined the hopeful band who detest darkness and earnestly turn their thoughts and actions towards the light ... I feel my heart thrill, like a freed bird, and I cannot help but offer thanks to The Great Giver, of that, which lets me see the real beauties of this universe...”

“The Pear Orchard”, begun sometime in the summer of 1882 and completed in time for exhibition at the Royal Academy in London the next year, is an effective expression of those qualities. It combines a warm “plein air” naturalism, a subtle tonalist treatment of
a circumscribed range of subdued colours melting into each other, and a general suppression of detail. The three casually posed children are crucially placed compositional elements: points of psychological interest in the loosely painted meadow. The two seated figures act as anchors at the centre of the canvas, while their standing companion reinforces the contrasting verticality of the tree by which he stands. He looks up into the tree’s branches and leaves, which in turn blend into a cross‒canvas horizontal play of green that parallels the soothing horizontality of the meadow itself. “The Pear Orchard” hints at the more overtly impressionist elements that would appear in Bruce’s paintings made at Giverny in the later 1880s. But in the warmth of its response to its subject, its open-air freshness, and its pleasingly manipulation of an expanse of colour and light that envelops and unifies the entire scene, “The Pear Orchard” exemplifies the charm and emotional accessibility of Bruce’s earliest work from France.

We extend our thanks to Brian Foss, Carleton University Chancellor’s 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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William Blair Bruce
(1859 - 1906)

Born in Hamilton, Ontario, his father an astronomer, did illuminated manuscripts. While his father’s work might have influenced him considerably he did not begin formal art training until he had attended the Hamilton Central School and the Hamilton Collegiate Institute and had spent some time at law study. He left the latter to begin work in an architect’s office as a draftsman and took classes in art in the evenings.

In 1881 he was able to go to Paris where he studied under Fleury and Bourguereau. After five years he returned to Canada with the intention of opening his one person show of 200 paintings but they were lost when the ship which carried them sank in the Gulf of the St. Lawrence. The loss was overwhelming and he suffered a nervous breakdown. He recovered sufficiently to return to Paris where he took up his brushes once more. He met a Swedish sculptress, Karoline Benedicks, and they were married in 1888 and turned to their art with dedication. They spent their summers in Sweden and winters in France and founded a small artists’ colony on the island of Gotland in the Baltic Sea (100 miles south of Stockholm). The site is now preserved by a foundation established by his wife before her death. Bruce painted many large canvases during his career which were then in popular demand.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977