Artwork by William Brymner,  Woman with a Book, 1907
Thumbnail of Artwork by William Brymner,  Woman with a Book, 1907 Thumbnail of Artwork by William Brymner,  Woman with a Book, 1907 Thumbnail of Artwork by William Brymner,  Woman with a Book, 1907 Thumbnail of Artwork by William Brymner,  Woman with a Book, 1907

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

Lot #115

William Brymner
Woman with a Book, 1907

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1907 upper right
28 x 21 ins ( 71.1 x 53.3 cms )

Estimated: $18,000.00$15,000.00 - $18,000.00

Mrs. William Brymner
Paul Viau
Sotheby’s, auction, Toronto, 25 February 2002, lot 4
Acquired by the present Private Collection, February 2002
“William Brymner, 1855-1925: A Retrospective”, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston; travelling to National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, Quebec City, 13 May–11 November 1979, no. 50 as “Untitled (Woman with a book)” (loaned by Paul Viau)
Janet Braide, “William Brymner, 1855-1925: A Retrospective”, Agnes Etherington Art Centre, 1979, no. 50, reproduced page 90
“Westbridge Art Market Report 28”, no. 3, April/May 2002, reproduced page 9
William Brymner’s “Woman with a Book” addresses a topic popular with artists at a time when increasing numbers of Canada’s expanding middle class—especially women—were embracing reading as a leisure activity. In 1893, for example, Joséphine Marchand‒Dandurand of Montreal founded “Le Coin du feu,” a monthly periodical (1893‒96), promoting reading amongst women. She also warned that morally dubious novels could be pernicious for women with undeveloped critical faculties, but by the time Brymner painted “Woman with a Book” such fears were focused less on adult women than on girls. Nothing in Brymner’s canvas suggests the worst‒case situation feared by Marchand‒Dandurand. The theme of women reading was treated with similar approval by many of Brymner’s contemporaries, especially women artists favouring images of female thoughtfulness rather than physical display. Helen McNicoll, for example, explored the subject in at least four paintings in 1913‒14: “The Chintz Sofa #2” (private collection), “In the Shadow of the Tree” (Musée national des beaux‒arts du Québec), “Under the Shadow of the Tent” (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), and “The Victorian Dress” (Art Gallery of Hamilton).

The palette of “Woman with a Book” initially appears simple, but is actually complex: something that perhaps reflects Brymner’s admiration of James Wilson Morrice, whose exquisite colour harmonies he came to appreciate while visiting and working with him in Canada and Italy in 1901, 1902 and 1903. The closest precedents in Brymner’s art to “Woman with a Book” are such images as “Longings/At the Window”, 1887 (Cowley Abbott, 22 November 2021) and “The Smithy, 1889” (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). Woman with a Book, however, pushes the centrality of a single colour to new lengths. Only the figure’s face, blouse and yellow daffodils, all lit by a source emanating from beyond the left edge of the painting, punctuate the many shades of brown. The latter define the background wall, the narrow shelf on which the woman perches, her dress, hat, gloves and book, and the cloth draped over what appears to be a side table. These shades range from the coppery brown of the upper right wall (establishing the figure’s physical presence by pushing forward her left shoulder, arm and hip), to the deep shadows of the rest of the wall and the folds of the skirt. They are often shot through with sombre shades of other colours that become visible only upon close viewing: dark purples, ochres, greens, yellows and rusty reds, as well as the muted blue that defines areas of the woman’s hair and the scarcely articulated trim of her jacket. These extra colours enrich but never overwhelm the painting’s symphony of browns. Brymner taught his students that formal techniques must always further the emotion an artist is attempting to convey, and in this case he suggests unshowy introspection through his orchestration of sober browns interrupted only by essential highlighting.

Brymner favoured the conservative aesthetics in which he had been schooled in France in the 1870s and 1880s. In “Woman with a Book” the impact of his training as a draftsman is evident in the care with which the body is articulated under the clothing. Yet Brymner was also receptive to more recent art. Impressionism—a style on which he lectured in 1886 and 1897—is evident in the cursory treatment of the sitter’s ears, the daffodils, and especially the obscure object, perhaps a cushion, on which she leans her right elbow. Also modernist is the use of highly visible, broad brushwork throughout the painting, and the combination in the blouse of scumbled paint and exposed ground. According to one critic, Brymner’s openness to stylistic diversity meant that with each new artwork he began “not only with different aims but sometimes even with new technical methods, but in every case he got something which was well worth having”. Those words could easily be applied to “Woman with a Book”.

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 contributing the preceding essay.
Sale Date: December 6th 2023

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

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William Brymner
(1855 - 1925) OSA, RCA

Born in Greenock, Scotland, he arrived in Canada with his parents in 1857. A Canadian painter who initially worked as an architect for the Canadian government, William Brymner took up painting full-time in 1876 and studied at the Academie Julien in Paris under the instruction of W.A. Bougereau and Tony Robert-Fleury. On his return from Paris he became head of the Art Association of Montreal in 1886, a post that he retained for 35 years. The same year he became a full member of the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1899 he painted a canvas entitled “Early Morning in September” a pastoral scene which Dr. Hubbard in his book “The Development of Canadian Art” noted for its “curiously soft and gliding tones”.

Brymner shared his love of landscape with two other fellow Canadian artists, James Wilson Morrice and Maurice Cullen and they took sketching trips to Ste. Anne de Beaupré and to the Ile d’Orleans. Professor Ella Agnes Whitemore writing on Brymner noted “He almost worshipped the art of Constable on which his own was based.” In 1892, Brymner went to Western Canada to do a number of large pictures of Rocky Mountain scenery which were commissioned by the Canadian Pacific Railway. He also had an interest in historical subjects and was one of the artists who aspired to decorate the House of Parliament in Ottawa. His part was to depict the arrival of Cartier on the rounded wall above the doorway of the rotunda but the plan was held in abeyance awaiting government appropriation.

Brymner did considerable painting of figures and interiors of very realistic presentation and the National Gallery of Canada has two fine examples of such nudes in interior settings and another nude executed in a classical vein. Paul Duval noted his work in watercolours and reproduced his “Two Girls Reading” for his book on this medium. Many of Brymer’s watercolours were done on silk and linen and as noted by Paul Duval his silk ones were done “in a fairly large scale”. Brymner is perhaps remembered more today for his teaching activities having had many students pass through his hands who achieved prominence including Wilfred Molson Barnes, Clarence A. Gagnon, Prudence Heward, Randolph S. Hewton, Edwin Holgate, Lilias Torrence Newton, Hal Ross Perrigard, Robert Pilot, Sarah Robertson and Anne Savage. A. Y. Jackson received occasional advice from him but did not study directly under him. William travelled extensively between and throughout Canada and Europe during the course of his career producing a wide variety of sketches, drawings, and paintings.

Perhaps his best known painting is "A Wreath of Flowers" completed in 1884. Another work, "With Dolly at the Sabot-Makers" (1883), has the distinction of being the first painting bought (in 1884, for $90.00) by the then newly established National Gallery of Canada. William married Mary Caroline Massey the daughter of Richard Massey and Caroline Gooch of Chester, Cheshire. Brymner suffered a stroke in 1917 and had to abandon teaching for a time. He left office of President of the Royal Canadian Academy and in 1921 also retired from teaching. He took a trip to Europe with his wife and spent two years at Capri.

William was described in the "Canadian Who Was Who" of 1938 (Trans Canada Press, 1930) as having "a strong personality, tall, slender, typically Scotch in appearance and in religious faith adhering to the Church of Scotland. Brymner was universally beloved by students not only for his craftsmanship, but also for his kindly disposition". It was after a trip to Europe in 1925 that William died at his wife's family home in Cheshire in 1925. He's buried there in the Wallasey cemetery. He is represented in the Quebec Provincial Museum, The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, The Art Gallery of Ontario, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery, the Art Gallery of Hamilton as well as the National Gallery of Canada. A showing of 89 of his pictures took place at the Art Association of Montreal in the fall of 1926.

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