The painter we weren’t ready for
While James Wilson Morrice lived Canada ignored his art though Europe hailed him as our first great painter. Today his major canvases bring more than $10,000. Here is the colorful story, and samples of the art, of
James Wilson Morrice was the first Canadian painter who ever broke into the bitterly competitive art world outside Canada. Early in the twentieth century this robust hard-drinking Montrealer won fame in Paris and London as an Impressionist of fine talent. Today he stands as one of the small group of major artists in Canadian history. Yet his brilliant career violated all the standard ideas about the Important Canadian Painter:
Most Canadian painters, such as the Group of Seven, loved Canada and painted it diligently. Morrice lived most of his life in Europe, painted Canada only occasionally, and came to hate his native city, Montreal.
Most Canadian painters of the past ignored what was happening in foreign art and concentrated on developing a national style, based on the challenging Canadian landscape. Morrice largely ignored Canadian developments and made his way beside the great painters of France.
Most Canadian painters of stature have been celebrated at home and ignored overseas. Morrice was celebrated in France and England but ignored during his lifetime in Canada.
Most Canadian painters have lived much of their lives in abject poverty. Morrice's father, a well-to-do textile merchant, was sympathetic to his career, and made sure he never had to worry about money.
Morrice came from a stern Presbyterian family, but when he went abroad to study art he developed an unquenchable thirst for life. His search for new experiences took him all over the Western world and in the process created an abiding mystery for Canadian art scholars.
Since his lonely death in 1924 on a painting trip to Tunis, a few scholars have tackled the baffling chore of untangling his career. Morrice painted in France, Holland, Italy, North Africa and the West Indies, as well as in Quebec. Sometimes he left paintings behind him, and he rarely dated his work. A wide variety of collectors were attracted to Morrice during his lifetime and his work keeps on turning up in odd places. Two of his paintings are still on display in Leningrad, apparently taken there more than forty years ago. Nine small sketches came to the surface continued on page 36
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Paintings courtesy of the Art Gallery of Toronto
The painter we weren’t ready for
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“He loved music, gay talk, women, cafés, the boulevards — everything that Paris stood for”
three years ago in Yugoslavia and are now in the Art Gallery of Toronto.
Many Morrice paintings have yet to be found. In Paris, during his lifetime, a photographer took pictures of seven Morrice paintings with subjects as varied as Venice, the Quebec landscape, and the bookstalls on the Seine. Any one of them would be a major Morrice canvas. Art dealers and the National Gallery have been hoping to find them for twenty years, but so far have had no success. One Canadian art dealer has private galleries all over Europe alerted to buy Morrices immediately, at prices up to ten thousand dollars if they happen to turn up.
But more than enough work survives to prove that Morrice was one of the best painters in Canadian history. To Donald Buchanan, associate director of the National Gallery and the foremost authority on Morrice, he was "the# first Canadian painter to plunge into the clear stream of the living art of our day.” Buchanan wrote in 1947 that, "Despite the accepted power of some who have followed, he remains to date our finest and most sensitive landscape artist.” Morrice’s personal life is even harder to follow than his art. He left no journals and few personal letters, and only a few close friends knew him for long periods. His personality has to be sought out in the writings of those who knew him for a few years—most notably the English novelists Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham and ;he art critic Clive Bell. They all knew him in Paris in the first few years of the century, when Morrice was in his late thirties and was coming to maturity as a painter. They met him at the Chat Blanc, a Montparnasse café he frequented. Bennett wrote in his journal on April 29, 1905:
Morrice came and dined with me last night ... I found him a most distinguished person, full of right and beautiful ideas about nearly everything. He said a number of brief things that were like knocking holes into the receptacle of his philosophy and giving glimpses of the treasure within.
Bennett was a newcomer to Paris then, while Morrice had been there, off and on. since he left Montreal in 1890. Bell, who later became the most influential English art critic of his time, was twentytwo when he first met Morrice. In 1956 he described Morrice at length in a book of memoirs called Old Friends:
The Canadian, J. W. Morrice, an excellent painter whose work, though fairly well known, is in my opinion still insufficiently admired . . . From Morrice I learnt to enjoy Paris . . . 1 remember saying that I thought Morrice the most remarkable of our companions at the Chat Blanc.
Somerset Maugham was more mature when he knew Morrice, but he was impressed too. As he admitted thirty years later, he used Morrice under the pseu-
donym “Warren,” in The Magician, an early novel. One of Maugham's characters says about Warren:
He’s the most delightful interpreter of Paris I know, and when you’ve seen his sketches—he’s done hundreds of unimaginable grace and feeling and distinction—you can never see Paris in the same way again.
Maugham was referring to the little oil sketches, about four inches by six inches, that Morrice executed by the score, often on wood taken from old cigar boxes. They can still be seen in most Canadian art galleries and in dozens of private collections; Arnold Bennett had one in his study for years.
Maugham also used his memories of Morrice in the character of Cronshaw in his much more famous novel, Of Human Bondage. And Bennett, though he would not admit it, probably used him for the character of Priam Farll in his 1908 humorous novel, Buried Alive. Priam Farll is a painter of Morrice’s type who takes his butler’s name and job to get away from the world and live with the woman of his choice.
Beauty was like wine
What attracted these writers and many other people to Morrice was his sensuous romantic love of life in all its forms. Every attitude that he struck in Paris was the precise opposite of what might have been expected of a man brought up in a strict Scottish Presbyterian home in Canada and educated in nineteenth-century Toronto. He loved music, gay talk, women, cafés, the boulevards — everything that the Paris of his time is supposed to stand for.
"Morrice,” Clive Bell wrote, “was one of those fortunate people who enjoy beauty as they enjoy wine; both were for him necessities and he was not too difficult about the vintage. Beauty he found everywhere; in streets and cafés and zincs (bars), in shop windows and railway stations, in the circus and on penny steamers.”
Morrice’s favorite word was “gusto”; he applied it to the way good painters painted, the way good musicians played, the way good poets wrote. He expressed it himself in his work, in his love of Paris and all its ways, and in his own music; he played the flute all his life, and even managed, according to some of his friends, to play Bach well.
“I got up this morning,” he once said to Bennett, “and I saw an old woman walking along, and she was the finest old woman I ever did see. She was a magnificent old woman, and 1 was obliged to make a sketch of her. Then there was the marc hand des quatre saisons (the street peddler): His cry is so beautiful. I began to enjoy myself immediately I got out of bed. It is a privilege to be alive.”
For Bennett, Morris summed up his attitude to life: “I enjoy everything,” he said.
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The fact that his enjoyment of almost everything was supported by prodigious amounts of alcohol was never held against him by the friends who enjoyed the spectacle of Morrice enjoying himself. John Lyman, the Montreal painter, knew Morrice for twenty years in France (he wrote a short book about him in 1945) and still recalls with amazement Morrice's excesses: "He was usually
glassy-eyed from alcohol about noon— he wasn’t himself until he was tanked up, really.”
The great French painter Henri Ma-
tisse, a close friend of Morrice for several years, accompanied him to Tangiers on painting trips in 1911 and 1912. He recalled Morrice’s drinking habits in a letter in 1925: “He had, everyone knows, an unfortunate passion for whisky. Despite that, we were, outside of our hours of work, always together. I used to go with him to a café where I drank as many glasses of mineral water as he took glasses of alcohol.”
Morrice acquaintances have often told stories about his behavior under the influence of alcohol. Sir Gerald Kelly, the
fashionable London portrait painter and former president of the Royal Academy, has told about one summer morning in Paris when Morrice, himself and some friends were returning from a night on the town. Morrice somehow fell into the gutter, which, because the streets were being washed, was a bubbling stream of water. Morrice disdained to rise immediately but instead, grasping the moment to record a visual impression, stared up at the grey sky and murmured descriptively, "Pearly, pearly.” Morrice’s friends were equally struck,
all through his life, by what seemed to be a permanent condition of transience. Though Morrice turned his back on Montreal and adopted Paris as the capital of his world, he never seemed to have actually settled there. His room was always full of trunks that seemed prepared for a journey at any moment. Most of his trips were hastily planned. Matisse recalled, "He was always over hill and dale, a little like a migrating bird but without any very fixed landing place.”
In a moment of self-revelation Morrice once said to the British painter Matthew Smith, "The only kind of woman suitable for an artist is one he can put on the mantel and forget about any time he wants to.” Morrice apparently found such a woman in Lea Cadoret, a short, pretty, brown-haired girl, whom he met when he was thirty-three. She came to his studio on the Quai des Grands Augustins one day in 1898 in answer to his advertisement for a model. She was eighteen and a lovely model (several of Morrice’s studies of her survive) but she posed for him professionally only a few times, for by then he had fallen in love with her. Until his death, twenty-six years later, she was his mistress.
He established her in an apartment in Paris and in later years bought her a house in Cagues, on the Riviera. But he never lived with her. He apparently saw her when he chose to, and when he went away she rarely accompanied him; she often didn’t know of his trips until he had gone. Some of his friends never heard her name until Morrice was dead, but a few knew her. Clive Bell remembers, "He enjoyed his round merry mistress, Lea, but he kept her in her place, that is, on the fringe of his life.” At seventy-eight. Lea Cadoret still lives in Paris and Nice and is still in touch with David and Eleanor Morrice, of Montreal, the painter’s nephew and niece. She has sold the Morrice family some paintings that Morrice gave her, but she now refuses to see art dealers who approach her with hopes of buying the few Mor-
rice sketches she still probably owns.
Through all the years in Paris and elsewhere Morrice was painting as few Canadians have ever been able to paint. He began to draw as a child in Montreal, where he was born on August 10, 1865. He was the son of David Morrice, whose business, D. Morrice Co. Ltd., was one of Canada’s leading textile firms.
The painter’s upbringing, which emphasized strict Sundays, diligent Bible study and a highly respectable Montreal private school, was anything but unusual. If he showed any real artistic talent early in life, no one noticed. It was expected that he, like his five brothers, would be a businessman. He was sent to the University of Toronto.
Morrice had an undistinguished uniersity career, but while there he managed to find enough painting time to levelop a reasonable proficiency. He attended Osgoode Hall law school in Toronto, and while there had one painting rejected by the Ontario Society of Artists and one accepted by the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1889 he showed two pictures in the spring show of the Montreal Art Association. By 1890 he had his law degree, but it was of no use to him: he had decided that he could, and would, be a painter.
David Morrice supported the Montreal Art Association and he was interested in artistic affairs. But he might normally have hesitated before giving support to his son's unorthodox decision. Young Jim. however, had on his side no less an authority on business and art than Sir William Van Horne. Sir William, one of the builders of the CPR, was by any standards the greatest art collector Canada ever had. Sir William bought El Greco long before El Greco’s revival, and he purchased Impressionists when few collectors in North America were paying any attention to them.
Sir William had happened earlier to see a Morrice sketch, thought he saw talent, and bought it—for ten dollars— to encourage the young mari. When David Morrice was pondering his son’s request to be allowed to study art in Europe, Sir William offered his view. Jim, he said, would never be happy in the law. He had talent, and he should be allowed to go. Soon Morrice was on his way to Europe.
He studied little. He enrolled at an art school called the Académie Julian, where he was apparently regarded as a rather preposterous figure: he was quite short and prematurely bald, and at that point he spoke little French. He felt that the atmosphere was unfriendly. He had been there only a short time when another student smashed a long French loaf of bread over his head. Morrice promptly quit.
He took as his master a traditional landscape painter, Henri Harpignies, who criticized Morrice’s work for a fee. Their relationship lasted only for a few months, but it was the only real tuition Morrice ever had. He valued Harpignies’ views, and the master’s style influenced him. But, sooner than most painters, he began to find his own way. He became closely attached to the modern French tradition and began to handle his brush with great lluency, forsaking detail for broad effects. He spent most of his time on landscapes and realized early that this would be his strongest field.
Morrice develdped a liking for the small-scale, quickly effective oil sketch, and made this form his own. Late in each day, wherever he was, he would try to find an outdoor café table and a glass of absinthe. He would pull his small cigar box full of brushes and paints from his pocket and sketch the scene before him
in oils. The sketches have a marvelously spontaneous look, yet still seem finished works of art. About five hundred of them are now believed to exist in art galleries and private collections.
His sketches now bring several hundred dollars each, but in Morrice’s lifetime he kept most of them long after he had painted them. In his studio he would carefully select one and then make from it a major painting, such as his Landscape, Trinidad, now in the Art Gallery of Toronto, or his The Ferry, Quebec, in the National Gallery. He might select for
working-up a sketch he had done two or three years before on another continent.
In the first few years of this century Morrice slowly evolved his own style of painting, and in 1905 a Paris art critic could say, "His vision has become personal.” In spite of the gaiety he exhibited publicly, the vision was often a melancholy one. His friend and contemporary, Maurice Cullen, with whom Morrice often painted on visits to Quebec, said of Morrice’s art, "It looks as if it were painted from the recollection of a dream.” Nothing in his paintings is ever
dogmatically stated — there is always room for a variety of interpretations, depending on the viewer and his mood.
The size of his reputation can be seen in the statement in 1907 of Louis Vauxcelles, a Paris art critic who took a deep interest in Morrice’s work. Vauxcelles said then that since the death of Whistler, four years before, no other North American in Paris had obtained the recognition that had been given Morrice.
By 1913 Morrice’s reputation had spread to England. A critic in The Studio, Britain's leading art magazine, wrote, "In
Mr. James Wilson Morrice, the Canadian painter whose work is familiar to visitors to the Salons of the Société Nationale des Beaux Arts, the Salon d’Automne, and the exhibitions of the International Society, we find the union of artistic temperament and technical dexterity balanced to perfection ... His smallest sketch is as definite and satisfying as any of his larger canvases." The critic also made some comparisons that must have pleased Morrice: “Those gems of color to be found in his myriad pocket sketches in oils are as vivid and fluid as Turner's
watercolors, as radiant wiin r.tcb .e light as the best of Claude Monet’s impressionism.”
Success in Europe gave Morrice immense confidence, and made him resent all the more the cool treatment his work was given in Montreal. Morrice was caught between two fashions in Canadian taste—the love for tame Dutch and English landscapes of the nineteenth century, and the slowly emerging appreciation of vigorous Canadian landscape art. He fitted into neither category. When he did occasionally sell in Montreal, however,
he demanded top prices—five hundred to eight hundred dollars—and would never haggle. Once a well-to-do Montrealer tried to bargain with an art dealer to lower the price on some Morrices. The dealer consulted Morrice. “Give the gentleman my compliments,” he said, “and tell him to go to hell.”
After his parents’ death in 1914, Morrice lost interest in Montieal. He returned only a few times, and then just to stop briefly on his way to the West Indies. During the First World War he spent most of his time in Paris. In 1918 he
served briefly as a Canadian war artist. He made sketches of soldiers and aircraft and executed one mural-size painting—almost nine feet by seven feet—of Canadian soldiers trudging the mud of Picardy in northern France. He was not overly pleased with it. but it was accepted and now is in the government’s collection of war art in Ottawa.
After the war Cuba, Jamaica and Trinidad replaced Europe and Africa as his favorite painting sites. “A painter should go south,” he once told a friend. “It cleans your palette for you.” His work changed in these years. He achieved a lushness and a direct abstracted design that made his last six years perhaps his most interesting period. One of his paintings from this period, House in Santiago. Cuba, was presented in 1924 to the Tate Gallery in London by the Contemporary Art Society of Britain. It still hangs in the Tate, in a basement hallway.
In 1923 Morrice, at fifty-eight, was a sick man, grown lean and haggard. In the previous year, at Montreux in Switzerland, he had undergone emergency surgery for intestinal ulcers, after he collapsed one day in a hotel room. After he recovered he returned to Paris but got out so little that a rumor of his death was widely believed. Late in 1923 he saw Lea Cadoret briefly in Cagnes and set off for Tunis. His stomach began to give him trouble on the ship. He became violently ill and had to be carried from the ship to a hospital in Tunis. In the hospital he died, on Jan. 23, 1924. He was buried in Tunis.
A retrospective exhibition of his work was held in Paris shortly before his death, and after he died two more were held. It was a good many years before he received this kind of attention in Canada. The National Gallery had bought a Morrice painting in 1909, the Montreal Art Association had bought two in 1915, and after his death the Montreal group gave him a memorial exhibition. But it was not until the season of 1937-1938 that Morrice was given a full-scale memorial exhibition by the National Gallery. The exhibition visited Montreal and Toronto as well as Ottawa. For the first time Canadians got a comprehensive view of the work of their first modern painter.
By then the prices of Morrice’s work, which were almost always in the hundreds during his lifetime, were rising into the thousands. In 1935 $1,200 was a common price and at least one work brought $1,900. In 1936 the price of one major canvas was $2,250. Today, according to Max Stern, a Montreal art dealer who has sold more than thirty Morrices in his Dominion Galleries, a major Morrice probably would bring $10.000 or more, if it were available. To Stern’s deep regret, major Morrices very rarely appear on the market. Most of the Morrice trade today is in small wood panels.
In the art world of Canada, and especially in Montreal, Morrice is now a success. Even if his name is not so common as Tom Thomson’s or Emily Carr's, he is still superbly represented in the National Gallery and in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.
But Morrice died embittered by the lack of honor at home. Just before he left for Tunis in 1924, he dropped in at the home in Cagnes of John Lyman, the Montreal artist. Lyman was away but his wife talked to Morrice for most of the afternoon. He expressed bitterness toward Montreal and Canada several times.
“Tell John not to bother with Montreal ever,” he said at one point.
“Do you expect you’ll ever go back again?” Mrs. Lyman asked him.
J. W. Morrice scowled. “Not if 1 can help it,” he replied, it