Lot #104

Charles Comfort
Aura Lee, 1949/1950

oil on canvas
signed lower right
24 x 30 in ( 61 x 76.2 cm )

Auction Estimate: $15,000.00$10,000.00 - $15,000.00

Acquired directly from the Artist
The Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery. March 1952
"Canadian Paintings", Brandon College, Manitoba, 1-31 October 1963
"Charles Comfort: Fifty Years", Winnipeg Art Gallery; travelling to the Art Gallery of Windsor; the Art Gallery of Hamilton and the Confederation Art Gallery and Museum, Charlottetown,
2 January-30 April 1973, no. 41
"An Evolving Tradition: Canadian Landscape Painting", Winnipeg Art Gallery, 12 February-12 June 1983
"Stored Secrets: The Vault on View", Winnipeg Art Gallery, 11 September- 27 November 1994
"Take Comfort: The Career of Charles Comfort", Winnipeg Art Gallery; travelling to the Confederation Art Centre, Charlottetown and Museum London, Ontario, 10 February-16 December 2007, no. 73 Into Our Collection: Staff Picks, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, 26 June-
4 October 2008
"Canadian Paintings", Brandon, Manitoba, 1963
"Ferdinand Eckhardt, Charles Comfort: Fifty Years", Winnipeg, 1973, no. 41, unpaginated, reproduced
Mary Jo Hughes, "Take Comfort: The Career of Charles Comfort", Winnipeg, 2007, no. 73, page 24, reproduced page 113
An official war artist for Canada during the Second World War, Charles Comfort served during the Allied invasion of Italy in 1943. In 1946, he returned to Canada and earned recognition for his powerful depictions of his wartime experiences. The adjustment to civilian life presented challenges for the artist, as he grappled with financial difficulties and the artistic necessities of finding new subject matter. Comfort persevered, establishing himself as a notable arts organizer and administrator. In the late 1940s, he served on the committees for the Art Gallery of Toronto and the Hart House Gallery, and was elected president of the Canadian Group of Painters in 1950.

During these years, Comfort regularly spent his summers at Cedar Lake in northwestern Ontario, often with fellow artists A.Y. Jackson and Will Ogilvie. Comfort had connections to members of the Group of Seven dating back to the early part of his career. Lawren Harris had been a critical early supporter, and in the 1930s, Comfort had a studio next to A.Y. Jackson in Toronto’s famed Studio Building. With his colleagues, Comfort drew inspiration from the distinct Canadian Shield landscape of the Cedar Lake region. The artist’s work evolved away from his war paintings and increasingly incorporated elements of symbolism and abstraction into his landscapes. Comfort found potential for visual metaphors in tangled piles of branches and driftwood, which regularly formed the foreground of his paintings from the period. At times these shapes take on overt anthropomorphic qualities, as in "Aura Lee". Author Mary Jo Hughes observed: “'Aura Lee'... has a pile of driftwood screening the small island that appears to float like a ship through the solid, Cedar Lake landscape. Comfort was not merely painting the landscape for itself, his work communicated his concern for the human condition–in this case of deterioration, death, and the promise of renewal.”

In the years following the war, Comfort participated in numerous exhibitions, including the Royal Canadian Academy and the Canadian Group of Painters. Significant public sales followed, including the acquisition of "Aura Lee" by the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1952. Respected as a cultural activist and administrator, Comfort would go on to serve as director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1959 to 1965.

This artwork is being sold to benefit the Winnipeg Art Gallery (WAG)-Qaumajuq in establishing an endowment fund to support more diverse representation in the permanent collection, beginning with contemporary Canadian art. Cowley Abbott is pleased to donate our selling commission to the fund as part of the sale.
Sale Date: May 30th 2024

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Charles Fraser Comfort
(1900 - 1994) Canadian Group of Painters, OSA, PRCA, RCA, CSPWC, MSA, CSGA,

Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he won first prize in an art competition at the age of eight. His family came to Canada in 1912 and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He started work two years later for a Winnipeg road paving company where he was a checker at the company's manufacturing plant. During his free moments he would sketch objects from his office window. At 14 years of age he entered a water colour painting in a competition at the YMCA which was judged by F.H. Brigden, RCA and won first prize. This led to his employment at Brigden's Winnipeg Office.

In the following years, he studied at the Winnipeg School of Art. In 1921 he won Third Prize in a national art competition and with the money he won, studied at the Art Students' League in New York under Robert Henri, E. Allen Tucker and Vincent DuMond. He returned to Canada in 1923 and probably about this time became very interested in water colour painting. In 1925 he moved to Toronto where he met many artists and in 1926 became a charter member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. In 1929 his painting “Louise,” a portrait of his wife, won honourable mention in the Willingdon Arts Competition and was reproduced in Bertram Brooker's “Yearbook of The Arts in Canada” with the following caption, “...Mr. Comfort is a Winnipeg artist who came to Toronto a few years ago and has contributed both oils and water colours to exhibitions in many galleries where their refreshing viewpoint has been widely noted.”

It was in 1931 that his essay “The Painter and His Model” appeared in the book “Open House” and was in essence an appeal to the viewer of an abstract, to try and accept the artist who painted it, as one who was genuinely expressing an abstract view. The was written at a time when most artists in Canada who did this type of painting were truly concerned with a way of expressing abstract thoughts rather than developing something unique that would “catch on” and prove to be a lucrative venture on the art market.

The economic slump of the 1930's made pursuit of the fine arts almost impossible. It was then that Comfort joined forces with his friend and fellow artist Will Ogilvie, and a third artist named Ayres. Their combined skills of portrait , advertising layout, architectural decoration, and magazine illustration provided enough income for each to devote some time to pure painting. Comfort decorated the North American Life Building in Toronto in 1932 and in his painting, travelled as far east as Nova Scotia, stopping in the vicinity of the Saguenay River where his canvas “Tadoussac” originated and was completed in 1935 (formerly in the Massey Collection, now in the National Gallery of Canada).

In this painting, Comfort reduced his subject, which was the harbour, to its basic geometric form, and the houses into boxlike shapes, the jutting land and approaching roadway, the hills and shoreline, into a series of arcs. It was simplified further by the faint cloud of mist partially concealing the distant horizon of the St. Lawrence. During this period he also started a series of bold watercolour portraits which included the well-known “Young Canadian” done in 1932 (Hart House collection), a portrait of Carl Schaefer. This portrait was chosen for exhibit at the Tate Gallery with another by him of Emmanuel Hahn, along with his “Tadoussac.” On seeing his work, Paul Oppe of the London “Mercury” had this to say, “...Charles Fraser Comfort, whose large portraits in water colour are among the most noticeable pictures in the exhibition, has a neater and more restrained note in his picture of pill-box houses against a wide expanse of sea,....” Oppe had been very sparing in his praise of the whole show and particularly cool to work by the former members of the Group of Seven.

Twelve years later, Donald W. Buchanan in his “Growth of Canadian Painting” recorded Comfort's outstanding development in the use of water colours for portrait painting. Comfort in the meantime had completed murals for the International Nickle Company of Canada at the Pars Exposition of 1937; a stone frieze for the exterior of the Toronto Stock Exchange 1937; a stone frieze for the exterior of the Dorchester Street Station, in 20 units symbolizing transportation, 1941; stone low relief for the interior of the Dorcheter Street Station in 1942 on an allegory of Canadian life and other themes.

The partnership between Comfort and Ogilvie dissolved in 1936 when Ogilvie was appointed to the staff of the Art Association School in Montreal and Comfort to the Ontario College of Art to teach mural painting. Ayres had assisted Comfort with the International nickle mural for Paris, in 1937, but little literature is available on what Ayres did after that project.

In 1938 Comfort joined the staff of the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto, and in 1939 was active with the University's Officer Training Corps as a cadet officer. While it was indicated above that he was working on murals until 1942 it is also recorded that be was an instructor in infantry weapons this same year. In 1943 he was appointed Senior Official War Artist with the Rank of Captain. He served in Italy with the First Canadian Infantry Division and with other units in Europe. In Italy he witnesses any battles beginning at Campobasso in the south, to Frienze in the north and painted many scenes of his experiences. He kept a diary of his activities and of things about him from which he later wrote the book “Artist at War” a well-written account of the campaign as seen through the eyes of an artist. He did a number of fine paintings which included the large canvas “Campobasso” (NGC), a scene of Canadian troops and carriers at the foot of the huge hill at Campobasso, known as “Maple Leaf City”; a large canvas reconstructing the landing of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on “White Beach” during the Dieppe Raid, with the support of the Calgary Regiment's Churchill tanks. In this scene Comfort masters every effect on the canvas, from the movement of the aircraft to the holocaust of the exploding shells of the enemy.

He returned to civilian life in 1946 leaving the army with the rank of Major. At the University of Toronto he continued to lecture as an associate professor in the Department of Art and Archeology. He contributed articles to a number of publications including “Canadian Art:, “Canadian Forum”, and others. In murals, he created on of the largest in Canada, 64 ft. long and 10 ft. high, for the Toronto Dominion Bank at Granville and Pender Streets in Vancouver, B.C., showing famous discoveries, industry of the province and famous people connected with its deep development. Orville Fisher, Gordon Dixon and Barbara Cook (now Endres) assisted him on this project. His other murals included one for Addison Hall, the women's residence for the Toronto General Hospital; one for the Department of Veterans' Affairs Memorial building in Ottawa. He was awarded a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship, 1955-6, to investigate the nature, extent and findings of those engaged in Old Master paintings technique-research in the Low Countries during the period of 1945-55and gathered material on 17th Century Dutch master techniques.

In his painting he had probed the realm of abstraction, as Robert Ayre states, “...because of a need to understand and cope with the complexities of his time.” In 1959 he had an Honourary of Laws conferred on him by the Mount Allison University at Sackville, New Brunswick. He was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Canada in 1960, an appointment he held until his retirement in 1965. A number of important exhibitions were held at the Gallery during his term of office including a showing of the Walter P. Chrysler Jr. Art Collection (The Controversial Century 1859-1950) in the fall of 1962. Thousands attended the National Gallery to view the highly educational, controversial and stimulating exhibition. Dr. Comfort's works can be seen in many public galleries across Canada, including, The Winnipeg Art Gallery, Art Gallery of Ontario; Hart House, University of Toronto and the National Gallery of Canada R.C.A. Diploma Collection, General Collection, and the Second World War Collection where among his other works, a number of water colour portraits of Canadian soldiers decorated for valour can be seen.

He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy; Canadian Society of Graphic Art; Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour; Ontario Society of Artists; Manitoba Society of Artists; Canadian Group of Painters. He also completed two murals for the new National Library, Ottawa in 1966, both measuring 35 by 9 feet. An exhibition of his work was organized by and shown at the Winnipeg Art Gallery in 1972 and circulated to Windsor, Hamilton and Charlottetown during 1973.

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