Artwork by Helen Galloway McNicoll,  The Chintz Sofa, circa 1912

Helen McNicoll
The Chintz Sofa, circa 1912

oil on canvas
signed lower left; studio stamp and titled on the reverse
31.75 x 39 ins ( 80.6 x 99.1 cms )

Auction Estimate: $350,000.00$250,000.00 - $350,000.00

Price Realized $888,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

The Artist
By descent to Dollie and May McNicoll, Montreal
Continental Galleries, Montreal
Paul Duval, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1970
“139th Annual Spring Exhibition”, Royal Society of British Artists, London, 1913, no. 190
“Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by the Late Helen G. McNicoll, R.C.A., A.R.C.A.”, Art Association of Montreal, 7 November‒6 December 1925, no. 77
“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. 49
“Season Opening Exhibition of Canadian Art”, Granite Club, North York, Ontario, October 1970
“Visions of Light & Air: Canadian Impressionism, 1885‒1920”, Musée du Québec; Québec City; travelling to Americas Society Art Gallery, New York; The Dixon Gallery and Gardens, Memphis; The Frick Art Museum, Pittsburgh; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 14 June 1995‒8 December 1996, no. 59
“Helen McNicoll: A Canadian Impressionist”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 10 September‒12 December 1999, no. 41
“The Group of Seven: Revelations and Changing Perspectives, Gallery One: Salon Style”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 2010
“Forging the Path: The Forerunners (1870‒1920)”, McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Kleinburg, 2 October 2010‒30 January 2011
“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. 73
“Cassatt‒McNicoll: Impressionists Between Worlds”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, 31 May‒4 September 2023
Dennis Reid, “Collector's Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection,” Toronto, 1988, reproduced page 54
Paul Duval, “Canadian Impressionism, Toronto”, 1990, page 96, reproduced page 97
Carol Lowrey, ‘Into Line with the Progress of Art: The Impressionist Tradition in Canadian Painting, 1885‒1920’, in Lowrey, “Visions of Light and Air: Canadian Impressionism, 1885‒1920”, New York, 1995, no. 59, reproduced page 130
Jonathan Goodman, ‘Impressionism‒Canadian Style’, “Montreal Gazette”, 18 February 1996, reproduced page F3
Natalie Luckyj, “Helen McNicoll: A Canadian Impressionist”, Toronto, 1999, page 63, reproduced page 65
Regina Haggo, ‘Reviving a Faded Glory’, “Hamilton Spectator”, 13 November 1999, reproduced page W6
Paul Gessell, ‘Women's Art Comes out of the Crate’, “Ottawa Citizen”, 23 November 2000, reproduced page F1
Kristina Huneault, ‘Impressions of Difference: The Painted Canvases of Helen McNicoll’, “Art History 27”, no. 2 (April 2004), pages 220‒221, reproduced page 220
A.K. Prakash, “Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists,” Richmond Hill, 2008, page 70, reproduced page 71
A.K. Prakash, ‘Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists’, “Queen's Quarterly 116”, no. 3, reproduced page 361
Katerina Atanassova, “Forging the Path: The Forerunners (1870‒1920)”, Kleinburg, 2010, reproduced page 23
Katerina Atanassova, “The Group of Seven: Revelations and Changing Perspectives,” Kleinburg, 2010, reproduced page 13
A.K. Prakash, “Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery”, Stuttgart, 2015, reproduced pages 496‒497
Katerina Atanassova, “Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, 1880‒1930”, Ottawa, 2019, pages 95, 265, reproduced page 194 Samantha Burton, “Helen McNicoll: Life and Work”, Toronto, 2020, page 50, reproduced page 51
Devon Smither, Alena Buis, Sarah E.K. Smith, Johanna Amos, Jennifer Kennedy & Liz Cavaliere, eds, “CanadARThistories: Reimagining the Canadian Art History Survey” (Toronto: eCampus Ontario, 2022 & ongoing), canadarthistories, reproduced page 173
Samantha Burton, ‘From Chintz to Crinoline: McNicoll in the Studio’, in Caroline Shields, ed., “Cassatt‒McNicoll: Impressionists Between Worlds”, Toronto, 2023, pages 86‒91, reproduced page 89
Helen McNicoll’s early training at the Art Association of Montreal under William Brymner was followed by study at the Slade School of Fine Art in London and at the Cornish School of Landscape and Sea Painting in St Ives. For most of her adult life she lived in England with British artist Dorothea Sharp (1873‒1955), whom she had probably met at St Ives and with whom she traveled and painted in Britain, France and Italy, the pair often producing parallel views of the same scenes of landscape, children and rural women. McNicoll’s critical reputation rested primarily, both during her lifetime and posthumously, on her many outdoor views drenched in scintillating impressionist sunlight. However, even her comparatively rare indoor subjects, such as “The Chintz Sofa”, exploit the warm whites, yellows and greens of her outdoor scenes.

“The Chintz Sofa” is set in a room at 81 Ashworth Mansions, in the Maida Vale section of West London: the home‒studio that McNicoll shared with Sharp in 1912‒13. The delimited view shows a comfortable sofa in an apparently domestic space, with drapes to ensure privacy. A wider‒angle 1912 or 1913 photograph of Sharp seated on the same sofa as the one in the painting shows that beyond the right edge of “The Chintz Sofa” the room was indeed a sitting room, complete with a large oriental carpet and grandfather clock. However, the room as it existed beyond the left edge of the painting functioned as a studio rather than a sitting room, as is evident in a photograph published in the “Montreal Daily Star” on 2 April 1913. That photograph shows the painting’s sofa, large cushion and surmounting window and drapes; but it also includes a stove, an artist’s easel, and paintings in progress. It was thus with justification that the newspaper described the view as “a corner of [McNicoll’s] studio”.

The sense “The Chintz Sofa” conveys of an ordered interior is achieved through the image’s division into two equal‒sized rectangles, one above the other, comprising the covered window in the upper half, and the sofa and sitter in the lower one. Compositional variety is achieved through the juxtaposition of the vertical folds of the drapes and upward thrust of the flowers in the upper half, with the horizontal character of the lower. The woman’s pose unites the two halves, her upright torso echoing the vertical lines of the upper section while her legs reinforce the horizontality of the lower. The composition’s calm stability is animated, however, by the brilliantly coloured and lushly painted blaze of red, yellow, green and purple flowers printed on the sofa’s chintz cover. Although chintz first came to Britain as a painted textile from India, by the time McNicoll created “The Chintz Sofa” the fabric was being mass‒produced at home rather than imported, and had come to be seen as an archetypically British form of decoration. McNicoll was visibly intrigued by the chintz’s riot of colour, which gave her an opportunity to indulge her propensity for impressionist visual effects. Significantly, the title of the painting derives from the sofa itself rather than from the sitter’s identity or actions (sewing or embroidering), or even from any mood suggested by the scene. McNicoll’s attraction to the bright floral pattern is also evident in another canvas she painted in the same room at about the same time and that is now also titled “The Chintz Sofa” (private collection). That painting shows the sofa and an identically upholstered wing chair, the latter occupied by a woman who may be the artist Marcella Smith, Sharp’s life partner following McNicoll’s death in 1915. The identity of the sitter in “The Chintz Sofa” itself is similarly uncertain. In her 1999 McNicoll exhibition—the artist’s first major museum show since her memorial exhibition in 1925—Natalie Luckyj states that the model was most likely Dorothea Sharp, and subsequent writers have repeated that identification. But Sharp’s facial features as seen in the above‒mentioned 1912/1913 photograph are difficult to reconcile with those of the woman in The Chintz Sofa. The model is, however, unmistakably the same person (of unknown identity) who posed with an infant for McNicoll’s “The Shadow of the Tree”, circa 1914 (Musée national des beaux‒arts du Québec).

With an asking price of £30 (approximately £4430/$7500 today), “The Chintz Sofa” was one of three paintings McNicoll exhibited with the Royal Society of British Artists in 1913, soon after being elected an associate member. She was probably inspired to apply because Sharp was already a member, just as Sharp’s position as vice‒president of the Society of Women Artists could have been an impetus for McNicoll’s participation in that group’s activities. In addition, Sharp and McNicoll—who shared a professional identity as independent women living together and successfully building careers in an art world dominated by men—may well have had a mutual allegiance to the women’s suffrage movement. (No firm documentation confirming or denying McNicoll’s relationship to the movement is known to exist.)

The suffrage movement was at a peak of public attention when “The Chintz Sofa” was painted. In June 1913 Emily Wilding Davison was trampled to death when she ran in front of the King’s horse at the Epsom Derby, and in March 1914 Mary Richardson, a Canadian‒born fine arts student, slashed Velázquez’s Rokeby Venus in the National Gallery, London. Natalie Luckyj has suggested that the white dress worn by the figure in “The Chintz Sofa” derives from such suffrage activities as the “Women’s Sunday” Hyde Park rally staged by the Women’s Social and Political Union on 21 June 1908, to which the almost 500,000 attendees had been encouraged to wear white dresses. White had the advantages of symbolizing the marchers’ purity of intention, and of being a relatively inexpensive colour that was within the budgets of women from various social strata. If Luckyj’s theory is correct, “The Chintz Sofa” would be an example of McNicoll undermining gender expectations by taking an activity associated with ‘appropriate’ femininity (in “The Chintz Sofa”, the act of sewing or embroidering), and presenting it as a veiled reference to political activism. But whether “The Chintz Sofa” is a political statement or a captured moment of introspective tranquility, it is proof that McNicoll’s achievements as an artist extended beyond the outdoor scenes that earned her the epithet “painter of sunshine”.

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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Helen Galloway McNicoll
(1879 - 1915) ARCA

Born in Toronto, Ontario, the daughter of David McNicholl, a vice-president and director of the Canadian Pacific Railway. She became deaf from the effects of scarlet fever contracted in childhood. Her talent for art was considerable and it was not long before she pursued formal studies in painting. She studied at the Montreal Art Association under William Brymner, then the Slade School of Art, London, England; and under Al. Talmage at St. Ives, Cornwall, England. She won the Jessie Dow Prize in 1908 and the Women’s Art Society prize in 1914. She was elected member of the Royal Society of British Artists in 1913 and, in 1914, became an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy.

Influenced strongly by the Impressionists, she did landscapes, figure studies, seashore scenes, and genre scenes, especially of the Province of Quebec and France. Much of her work was highlighted by the effects of sunlight. During her lifetime, she made little effort to sell her work because of her independent means, but her paintings have now become very much sought after. Although she lived most of her life in Montreal, she died in Swanage, England, at the age of thirty-five.

She is represented in the collections of The National Gallery of Canada, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Beaverbrook Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton, and in many private collections, including Jeno Diener (Tor.), Paul Duval (Tor.), Paul W. Matthews (Tor.), Max Merkur (Tor.), Fred Schaefer (Tor.) and Dr. Marek Rosset (Tor.). In 1925, a memorial exhibition of her work (141 paintings) was held at the Art Association of Montreal. At that time, a small portion of these paintings had been loaned for the exhibit by Mrs. T.A. Trenholme, Hon. C.C. Ballantyne, Lady Van Horne, F.L. Wanklyn, Esq., W.T. Trenholme, Esq., and Miss A. Cleland. In October of 1970, the Granite Club of Toronto held an exhibition of her paintings. This exhibition was organized by Donald S. Potter, general manager, and James Francis, assistant manager of the Granite Club.

Literature Source:
"A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume 4: Little - Myles", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1978