Artwork by Frank Hans Johnston,  Montreal River, Algoma, 1919

Frank Hans Johnston
Montreal River, Algoma, 1919

gouache on paper
signed “Frank H. Johnston” lower left
15 x 15.25 ins ( 38.1 x 38.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $30,000.00$20,000.00 - $30,000.00

Price Realized $60,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

Roberts Gallery, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1966
“Group of Seven Exhibition of Paintings”, Art Museum of Toronto, 7‒27 May 1920, no. 50 as “Froth Pattern, Below Rapids”
“A Reconstruction of The First Exhibition of the Group of Seven”, 1‒31 May 1970, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, no. 50 as “Montreal River” (?)
“Le Groupe des Sept/The Group of Seven”, The National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 19 June‒8 September 1970; travelling to Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 22 September‒31 October 1970, no. 96
“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. 80 as “Montreal River, Algoma”
F.H. Johnston, New York to Dr. James MacCallum, Toronto, 8 April 1915, Dr. James M. MacCallum Papers, Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
F.H. Johnston, Toronto to Eric Brown, Ottawa, file 5.42 Johnston, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa “Etchings Predominate at Art Exhibition,” Daily Star (Toronto), 3 May 1919
F.H. Johnston, Hubert to Florence Johnston, Toronto, 1 October 1919, and 6 October 1919, Mary Bishop Rodrick and Franz Johnston Collection, R320, vol. 1-8, Library and Archives Canada, Ottawa [Fred Jacob], “Seven Artists Invite Criticism,” Mail and Empire (Toronto) 10 May 1920
Peter Mellen, “The Group of Seven, Toronto”, 1970, reproduced page 211, fig. 256 as “Montreal River”
Dennis Reid, “Le Groupe des Sept/The Group of Seven”, Ottawa, 1970, no. 96, reproduced page 138
Denis Reid, “A Bibliography of the Group of Seven”, Ottawa, 1971, page 73
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, no. 80, page 73 reproduced as “Montreal River, Algoma”
Charles C. Hill, “The Group of Seven Art: for a Nation”, Ottawa, 1995, pages 83, 310
Roger Burford Mason, “A Grand Eye for Glory: A Life of Franz Johnston”, Toronto/Oxford, 1998, page 34
Joan Murray, “Water: Lawren Harris and the Group of Seven”, Toronto, 2004, reproduced page 78‒79
In April 1914 Frank Johnston left Toronto to seek work in New York and Philadelphia. Suffering from ill health, his efforts came to naught and he was back in Toronto by April 1916, when he again exhibited with the Ontario Society of Artists and reconnected with his former associates from the design firm Grip Ltd. and members of the Arts and Letters Club. In August 1918 he received a commission to draw and paint the activities of the flight training schools in southern Ontario for the Canadian War Memorials programme; however, a trip to Algoma with Lawren Harris and J.E.H. MacDonald in October interrupted his war work and set him off on a new direction. “Our trip north was a great success – we struck new country in every respect and had a wonderful time sketching for all that was in us,” he wrote to Eric Brown, director of the National Gallery. “I returned with fifty three sketches – all sizes ranging from four to seven inches up to thirty thirty. We all came back without a regret as regards the amount of work we could do. Next time you are in Toronto I would like you to see them. Sir Edmund Walker seemed to like them well enough to ask if Harris, MacDonald and myself would hold a three man show in the Grange this coming spring, so we are going to keep the collection of sketches intact, and try and get a couple of big ones painted to include in the show.”

Johnston had fifty‒seven works in the Algoma exhibition at the Art Museum of Toronto in late April 1919, fifty-one sketches of varying dimensions, probably most in tempera, his favoured medium, and six larger canvases previously shown with the Ontario Society of Artists in March. The writer in the “Toronto Daily Star” admired Johnston’s contributions. “Mr. Johnston sees nature much as a huge decoration‒ the blue and purple mountains with a glimpse of orange sky; the sparkle of autumn foliage against the molten grey of a placid lake‒he eliminates detail and finds wide unbroken expanses.”

In September 1919 Johnston returned to Algoma with Harris, MacDonald and A.Y. Jackson, the latter newly released from military duty. They painted at Hubert, Batchewana and the Montreal Falls along the route of the Algoma Central Railway. On 1 October Frank wrote to his wife in Toronto, “We have had two fine days in succession. Reds are gone but birch trees are hanging in. Forests are a mass of gold dotted with deep green spruce spiring up like cathedrals. ... Mac & I went on a handcar to Montreal Falls where the big trestle is. We went under & down by the falls. I made my best sketch yet.” He wrote again on 6 October, “I was counting my sketches just before I started to write the letter and would you believe it‒fifty-seven ... the reason is that we know where to find the stuff this year and it saves a lot of looking around. I have not very many panels left so I guess I will just do about one a day from now on, otherwise I will run out of material. I think one of the sketches I made today is possibly one of the best I have made up here, a very simple decorative type of thing but a good size 21 x 25.” Though it is hard to imagine the difficulties Johnston might have had painting in tempera on paper in the midst of the rapids’ spray, the dimensions he quotes suggest that in fact the temperas were painted on the spot and “Montreal River” might be the “best sketch” he referred to on 1 October.

It was on the same occasion that J.E.H. MacDonald painted the sketch that would be worked up into the canvas, “Falls, Montreal River” (Art Gallery of Ontario). Viewed from above the falls, the scale of the canvas enhances the impact of the violent flow of water while in Johnston’s painting he has daringly positioned himself in the midst of the roaring torrent. The almost square format enhances the decorative effect. The similarities and differences between the two paintings are striking.

Johnston never exhibited a work titled “Montreal River, Algoma”, which is probably a description of the site provided by the family for one of the two Johnston exhibitions held at Roberts Gallery in the 1960s, where the current owners acquired this painting. Dennis Reid has suggested that it was in fact one of sixteen temperas Johnston showed in the first Group of Seven exhibition in May 1920 as “Froth Pattern, Below Rapids”. Johnston’s contributions were admired by Fred Jacob of the “Mail and Empire”. “The finest master of decorative art in this group is Frank H. Johnston. ... He has a gift for finding subjects that show nature in a fanciful, or, at times, fantastic mood, and he catches the feeling exactly.”

Johnston was an amazingly prolific artist, as evidenced by his delight in his own production. Having encountered financial difficulties constructing a house in North Toronto, outside coverage of insurance companies and banks, in the fall of 1920 he moved his family to Winnipeg, where he taught at the city’s art school and directed the public gallery. In January 1922 he held an exhibition at the Winnipeg Art Gallery that included 326 works of which over 100 bore Algoma titles. In spite of the great number of Algoma subjects he painted, they remain relatively rare and most of the known works are decorative arrangements of trees and foliage against hills or sky. This dramatic view of the roaring falls appears to be unique.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven‒Art for a Nation”, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Frank Hans Johnston
(1888 - 1949) Group of Seven, OSA, ARCA, CSPWC

Born in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Hans Hamilton Johnston and Mary Elizabeth Roderick (both parents from Ireland) he was educated at the Givins Street School, Toronto, the Central Technical School under Gustav Hahn, the Central Ontario School of Art under William Cruikshank and G.A. Reid. He served his apprenticeship with Brigden's Limited in Toronto. He became employed by the Grip Engraving Company sometime in 1908. He then went to the United States where he continued his studies, and later attended the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Art under the late Phillip Hale and Daniel Garber. He moved to New York where he worked in the Carleton Illustrators Studios, a firm which was associated with the Carleton Studios in London, England. He then returned to Toronto.

In 1918 Johnston was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials to record the activities of Canadian flying personal training for overseas duty. During this period, he produced seventy-three (or more) works including water colours, temperas, and oils. Many of these paintings although of documentary nature were brilliantly created through masterful composition and colouring. Johnston's paintings are among the finest in the war collections. Following his service with the Canadian War Memorials he returned to Toronto where he probably spent some time at the Studio Building.

In 1918, he accompanied Lawren Harris, JEH MacDonald, Dr. James McCallum in their first box car trip to Algoma. This region of northern Ontario was an area of beauty in autumn. The trees of gold, yellow, and crimson covering the majestic mountains and edges of the lakes and rivers moved the artists to create some of their finest canvases. Johnston returned to Algoma in 1919 with Jackson, MacDonald, Harris and Dr. MacCallum who probably joined them later. This group went again in 1920.

In 1920 Johnston became a founding member of the Group of Seven and he exhibited in their first exhibitions but in 1922 his association with the Group of Seven ended. They had become a target of attacks by critics and somehow their group spirit seemed to limit Johnston from doing what he wanted to do. He was every bit as eager to express his love of the Canadian wilds as they were but he wanted to paint in a less controversial style.

Johnston held a solo exhibit of his work at the T. Eaton Company in December, 1920, when “The Mail and Empire” noted, “The position of Frank H. Johnston, A.R.C.A. Among local artists is unique. Mr. Johnston is always classed as one of the much discussed 'group of seven,' but he has never got out of touch with the picture lovers who cannot quite get the viewpoint of his ultra-radical companions....He has the secret of the living, vivid colouring of the Northland, and catches the feeling of the wild spaces.”

Johnston left Toronto when he was appointed Principal, the Winnipeg School of Art. He kept up his activities as a painter and held an exhibit of 326 of his paintings at the Winnipeg Art Gallery of which Arthur Stoughton of the “Free Press” noted, “The greater number of the pictures are done in tempera, although this show presents evidence of the versatility of this man. He seems to have tried every colour medium with good results....there are some dozen pastels which have a three-fold interest—first, from their good quality, second, because they present the artist's first impressions of Winnipeg, and, third, as being his first essays in this medium.” In December of that year Johnston held another exhibition of his paintings particularly of Western Canada which were described as having “the stimulus of the great spacious plains”, “magnificent cloud effects”, “glowing sunsets and enveloping sunshine.”

He was principal of the Winnipeg School of Art from 1920 to 1924 and by 1927 was back in Toronto where he became principal of the Ontario College of Art. About 1926 he changed his name from Frank to Franz because he was told by a numerologist friend in New York that the name Frank would never being him success. Johnston wrote down the name Franz (name of a community east of White River, Ontario) and his friend told him it was an excellent choice. His canvases from then on were signed Franz Johnston.

He was principal of the Ontario College of Art from 1927 to 1929. He exhibited his work throughout his career with the Ontario Society of Artists and the Royal Canadian Academy as he was a member of both societies . In 1931the Simpson's Fine Arts Gallery created a new Franz Johnston Room for the express purpose of selling his paintings.

Johnston established a summer school of art at Georgia Bay (1930-1940) where he was closer to that part of Ontario he loved to paint. In 1940 he closed his summer school and settled at Wyebridge in the same region. He began his trips ito the Far North in the thirties and his work of this period was exhibited at several galleries including the Malloney gallery in Toronto. In 1938 Augustus Bridle in “The Toronto Star” notes Johnston's exhibit at Malloney's as follows, “Canada's farthest-north regular painter has for three years brought the land of crackling sub-zero, shivering spruces and truculent husky dogs into picture shows here....What he has already painted of actual life in the Nipigon Country, as shown in this super-brilliant, intimate picture-saga at Malloney's, is to him a mere prelude to what he intends to paint of Canada's so-called 'lost frontier.'”

In 1939, he was commissioned by Gilbert Labine (Vice-Pres. Of Eldorado Gold Mines) to go to the Canadian Arctic to paint nature, trappers, miners and Indigenous People in all seasons and after five months completed 100 sketches. Working in 35 to 40 below zero weather, he mixed his pigments, which became like jelly, with pure turpentine. When he painted he covered his hand in a lumberman's sock through which he manipulated his brush. Many of these works were exhibited at Malloney's in December of that year.

In 1940, he completed a large canvas entitled “Shack In The Woods” which he considered his masterpiece. He took it to a Toronto art dealer to sell and was in the process of dickering for the best price when a man (from New York) entered the gallery and asked Johnston how much the work was on the spot. Later reproductions of this painting were sold by the thousands with Johnston receiving no royalties from their sales.

In 1942 he exhibited his work at Eaton's, particularly scenes of the Wyebridge area, also some arctic paintings. He again exhibited at Eaton's in 1943 when Augustus Bridle found in his paintings “Green-blue skies and lavender snows; blue snow-wraiths in the shadow against a blaze of early morn golden light; ravishing snakes of water as opalescent as rainbow-backed beetles; tousles of brushwood that look like jack pine or tamarac because painted so vividly...These are a few of the Wy-fantasias.”

In 1948, Johnston moved from Wyebridge to Midland, Ontario, but not long afterwards suffered a stroke. His paintings were in popular demand until his death. In July, the Owen Sound “Sun-Times” noted his passing as follows, “It may be said that, in a sense, Franz Johnston dedicated his professional life to Canada, for he has a deep appreciation for what this country had to offer. This sense of dedication was exemplified in his works. He painted Canadian things because he knew them best and he knew them best because he chose to live and work among the scenes and the people he portrayed...He will be long remembered for his long-established summer art school on Georgian Bay. Here he not only created some of his own most famous paintings, but also guided the steps of many other painters along the pathway to success.” The bulk of Johnston's paintings still in his possession at the time of his death were purchased by Laing Galleries, Toronto. A plaque was unveiled by Mrs. John Schofield (formerly Mrs. Franz Johnston) on the grounds of his former residence at Wyebridge, Ontario on September 18, 1963. The Roberts Gallery, Toronto, held an exhibition of his works during the same year. Johnston also illustrated ans decorations or a number of books. At the time of his death, Johnston was survived by his wife, four children—Frances-Anne Johnston, ARCA (wife of Franklin Arbuckle, RCA); Mrs. James Stevenson; Paul Roderick (an artist who paints under this pseudonym); Franz Lawren Johnston; a brother Harry Johnston.

He is represented in the following public collections: Saskatoon Art Centre; Art Gallery of Ontario; McMichael Canadian Art Collection; National Gallery of Canada (General and War Art Collection); among others. A retrospective exhibition of his work was organized by his son Paul at the Rothman Art Gallery, Stratford, Ontario and opened in September 1970.

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