Thursday, August 20, 2015

James Wilson Morrice

Return from School
c. 1901
oil on canvas
73.7 x 44.5 cm
Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, Canada

James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924), born in Montreal, was the first Canadian painter to win an international reputation. He was a pioneer of "pure" painting as opposed to the painting of local scenery. He was the son of a wealthy textile merchant. Characteristically, he made small pencil drawings or oil sketches on wooden panels no larger than 5 by 6 inches while seated in a cafe from which he could observe the passing show, a glass of whiskey at his elbow. He painted all his large pictures in his studio on the Quai des Grands Augustins, in broad areas of harmonious color and with detail kept to the minimum.

From 1882 to 1886 he attended the University of Toronto, and then he studied to become a lawyer. As a student, he began to paint landscapes, and in 1888, while articled to a law firm, he exhibited a painting with the Royal Canadian Academy. In 1889, with the encouragement of Sir William Van Horne, president of the Canadian Pacific Railway and a perceptive art collector, he abandoned the practice of law for good and set sail for Europe.

He became a familiar figure in the international group of artists and writers who met at the Chat Blanc, a small restaurant in Paris. Among the group were Somerset Maugham and Arnold Bennett. In 1908 he met Henri Matisse, and they traveled in Morocco in 1911-1912 and 1912-1913, although they did not paint together.

He remained in France for much of World War I and was commissioned to paint the Canadian troops in action in Picardy in 1918. From 1919 on, his health began to decline, and he spent more time in warmer climates, visiting the West Indies in 1920-1921. He died while on a visit to Tunis.