Tuesday, 22 April 2014

PORTRAIT PAINTING IN CANADIAN ART HISTORY

PORTRAIT PAINTING IN CANADIAN ART HISTORY

This month we have had the opportunity to acquire a couple of portrait paintings by Nicholas de Grandmaison. Masters Gallery has always had success placing the work of Nicholas de Grandmaison in new homes and collections. His paintings' continued popularity are evident by the rapidity in which they come into the gallery and then leave soon after. This makes it 'double' the pleasure to glance upon two at once. de Grandmaison was a master at pastels, but even more so was he a master at truly capturing the persona of his sitters. His abilities mark him as one of Canada's best portrait artists of all times, and furthermore he can be singled out for his concentration on capturing the individuals of various First Nations across Western Canada. Particularly cherished are his portraits of Papooses, whom are all infants and young children convincingly depicted with the most endearing of facial expressions.

Nicholas de Grandmaison. Papoose pastel on paper 16 x 12 in. (New acquisition at Masters Gallery Ltd. Vancouver.)

Nicholas de Grandmaison. Papoose 15 x 13 in. pastel on paper. (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Nicholas de Grandmaison's pastels are not the only portrait art we currently have in the Vancouver gallery. We have also recently sold and acquired Colville silkscreen prints that are portraits of Colville's wife, Rhoda. They are not standard head, bust or 3/4 length posed portraits, but rather moments in action. These works still qualify as portraits, as portraiture can be broadly defined as, "depict[ing] the visual appearance of the subject (usually human)." Although I have been talking about portraits in reference to the genre of 'portrait painting,' other mediums such as the silkscreen or other printing techniques can be included in the term.

Alex Colville. Sunrise 1970 silkscreen print. (Recently sold at Masters Gallery Ltd. Vancouver)

Alex Colville. Sleeper 1975 silkscreen print. (New Acquisition at Masters Gallery Ltd. Vancouver)

Portrait painting has been around since time immemorial. It has fulfilled various purposes over time, from simply providing a visual record to further intents to memorialize, adore, endear, remember, present prestige and power, or aid with propaganda. Typically a portrait casts a favourable and/ or honest impression upon the sitter, while also aiming to endow the sitter with an essence of personal character. Portrait painting has developed and advanced over time along with painting in general, particularly from the early Renaissance to the 19th century. Prior to the 19th century portraiture was typically commissioned by the nobility or the church, but that began to change during that century.

A Roman-Egyptian Funerary Portrait Painting

Portrait of King Richard III England, Last quarter 15th century

Hans Holbein (German). Anne of Cleves England, circa 1539.

Johannes Vermeer (Dutch, 1632-75)Lady Writing a Letter

Jean Auguste Dominique Ingres (French) Napoleon I on his Imperial Throne 1806

Frank Cadogan Cowper (English) Vanity 1907

Until mass scale use of photography took place from the mid-to-late 19th century, portrait painting was essential for visually recording people. Photography could replace portrait painting to more easily create visual records and thus had a particularly significant effect on the genre. Until then portrait paintings had enjoyed a place of high esteem in the hierarchy of painting genres. It was second in prominence only to history painting and above 'genre' painting. Luckily the camera did not render portrait painting obsolete. Portrait painting survived the advent of photographic portraiture, and adapted to allow for further creative variety within the genre. The photograph could quickly capture the accurate record of a sitter, leaving portrait painters free to explore alternative ways of capturing the individual spirit. Perhaps the more extreme example of this could be illustrated by the abstracted portraiture of cubism.

19th century photographic portraiture including various actors/actresses and the Russian Imperial Romanov family

Pablo Picasso (Cubism) Portrait of Henry-Kahnweiler 1910

Georges Braque (Cubism) Portrait of a Woman circa 1911

Like with any art genre, the history of portraiture is far too immense to discuss in more detail within one blog. Even one period or place would be too vast a topic, thus like the recent blog about 'genre' painting I will touch the surface of portrait painting in Canadian art history. This is not just to narrow the scope of the discussion but also is to bring our attention to great Canadian art that falls outside the nation's most praised landscape schools.

There were artists who were primarily active as portraitists earlier on in Canada's history, during the Pre-Confederation period in the first half of the 19th century. As the Canadian colonies grew, so too did the middle and upper classes whom had settled there. There was a significant enough business for portrait commissions amongst colonial families with newly acquired wealth. Thus portraiture is one of the most common surviving art forms from Pre-Confederation Canada, and some of the artists were quite talented. Noteworthy artists include Antoine-Sebastien Plamandon, Theophile Hamil and George Berthon.

Antoine-Sebastian Plamandon Souer Sainte-Alphonse 1841, Quebec

Theophile Hamil Portrait of Mme. Charles Turgeon 1855, Quebec (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

George Berthon (1806-1892) Portrait of Lena Fulton (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Since photography circulated into general use, increasingly limited numbers of artists focused their careers solely on portraiture. I might argue that portraiture on a grand scale lingered on more so in Europe due to the longstanding tradition of portraiture being hierarchically important in the Academic art world, such as at the Royal Academy in London or at the Salons of Paris. In Canada, a focus on landscape painting was prevalent by the end of the 19th century with Canadian impressionists such as Maurice Cullen and James Morrice.

When I think of a Canadian artist since the end of the 19th century whom ultimately was a portrait artist above all I think first and foremost of Nicholas de Grandmaison. In both pastel and oil he could truly create a lively likeness of his sitter. Last year Masters Gallery handled a masterpiece of de Grandmaison's that depicted a coastal chief and master carver, Jimmy Johns. This portrait provides a lingering impression on the viewer because one is left wondering what knowledge and wisdom rests behind Jimmy John's gaze, an achievement of de Grandmaison's that is not unlike what one experiences from the stare of Da Vinci's Mona Lisa. de Grandmaison's ability to leave the viewer in wonder of his sitters can be found in all his portraits, including a recent acquisition at the gallery of an Elderly Squaw at Brocket, Alberta. This portrait is special because it is the last one that de Grandmaison painted (as noted by his surviving family). There are a few other artists that focused on portraiture of a similar subject and in a similar style in the country, such as Harley Brown and Gerda Christoffesen.

Nicholas de Grandmaison Nootka Chief Jimmy Johns 1947 pastel on paper (sold at Masters Gallery Ltd. Vancouver)

Nicholas de Grandmaison Squaw at Brocket, Alberta 1977 pastel on paper (Recent acquisition at Masters Gallery Ltd. Vancouver)

Although Nicholas de Grandmaison is one of few 20th century Canadian artists working most definitively as a portraitist, there are still a number of renowned Canadian artists who ventured into portrait painting. These artists are highly regarded for their work in the genre, despite also being known for their associations with landscape and other schools of art. Two very good examples would be the Group of Seven member Frederick Varley, and eighth member of the Group of Seven Edwin Holgate. These are also artists who took some stylistic liberty with visual accuracy, as they both painted in a neo-impressionistic manner. Verisimilitude was secondary to colour, brushstroke and other impressions. A student and companion of Varley's named Vera Weatherbie was the sitter in many of his most memorable portraits. Edwin Holgate spent his career creating both landscape and figural work, and the female nude was an integral part of his painting oeuvre. In addition to being considered the eight member of the Group of Seven, Holgate was also a founding member of the Beaver Hall Group.

Frederick Varley Vera Weatherbie, Blue and Moonlight 1934 (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Edwin Holgate Portrait of a Young Woman 1938 oil on panel (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Edwin Holgate The Bather circa 1932, oil on canvas (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

The artists of the Beaver Hall Group in Montreal were active contemporaneously to the Group of Seven. Stylistic overlaps are shared between the groups, and many of the artists corresponded and cross-exhibited their work. A.Y. Jackson was also a member of both and Randolph Hewton of the Beaver Hall Group exhibited with the Group of Seven. Hewton is well-known for his Quebec rural landscapes but also was a proficient portrait artist. Many of the Beaver Hall Group artists engaged in portraiture as well as landscapes. In particular the women members of the group engaged in the genre with regularity. Examples include Lilias Newton Torrance, Prudence Heward, Emily Coonan and Paraskeva Clark. Whether or not it is a conincidence that the women favoured portraiture I am unsure, however during that era it may have been a more seemly subject for women than landscape painting, which required trekking into rural areas in various adverse climactic conditions to paint en plein air as their male counterparts did with greater regularity. This of course would be inapplicable today, but in the 1920s and 1930s that would have potentially been a factor in society. Either way the result of their portrait paintings is exceptional.

Randolph Hewton Portrait of Alice Buller oil on canvas (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Lilias Newton Torrance Self-Portrait National Gallery of Canada

Lilias Newton Torrence Young Woman in an Artist's Smock 1947 (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Prudence Heward Portrait of the artist's mother ( Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Paraskeva Clark Self-Portrait 1933 National Gallery on Canada

Emily Coonan Girl in Dotted Dress circa 1923, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Hamilton

Another female Canadian artist worth mentioning who worked most often with portraiture or figurative painting was Laura Muntz Lyall. She is considered a Canadian Impressionist, and is of the generation of Canadian artists preceding the Beaver Hall Group. She is known for her abilities in capturing the innocence of childhood through her mastery of a soft palette and gentle, loose brushstrokes. Masters Gallery has always had success finding homes for Muntz Lyall's portraits of youth quite quickly, just as for Nicholas de Grandmaison's portraits of youngsters. In fact despite a strong national focus on landscape painting, it could be said that any portraiture by an esteemed Canadian artist has popularity amongst voyeurs and collectors alike. This attests to the fact that the genre has delivered some significant contributions to the history of art in Canada.

Laura Muntz Lyall Young Girl at Study 1902 oil on canvas (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

Laura Muntz Lyall Young Girl Against a Floral Wall 1900 (Past sale highlight at Masters Gallery Ltd.)

BY: JILL TURNER

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