Friday, 19 September 2014



The Club Before the Group refers to the ‘Canadian Art Club,’ which preceded the Group of Seven by a few years in the beginning of the 20th century. The general impression might be that the Group of Seven was Canada’s first non-institutional group formed as an exhibiting conglomerate of artists who worked together closely sharing ideas, principles, and goals. Yet there have been other groups of artists who flocked together under similar artistic pretenses and were not able to achieve their goals within the confines of prevailing artistic institutions. One such group that pre-dated the Group of Seven was the Canadian Art Club.

Edmund Montague Morris Girls in a Poppy Field circa 1896 (Art Gallery of Ontario)

The Canadian Art Club was active between 1907 and 1915, and as a whole has been overshadowed by the vast and lasting success of the Group of Seven. Interestingly, despite a lack of widespread remembrance about the Club itself, its membership reads like an A-list of Canadian art history’s top artists. Edmund Montague Morris and Curtis Williamson were two young Toronto based artists who were responsible for forming the Canadian Art Club, and they remained the driving force behind maintaining the Club.

A. Curtis Williamson Fish Sheds, Newfoundland 1908 (National Gallery of Canada)

Very unfortunately, the grief felt at the tragic death of Edmund Montague Morris in 1913 by drowning at one of his favourite sketching locations was a major upset and factored into the dissolution of the Canadian Art Club. It is ironic that the grief felt at the tragic death of Tom Thomson in 1917 by drowning at one of his favourite sketching locations was a major driving force behind the banding together of his friends to form the Group of Seven. One artist’s death by drowning instigated the demise of a group; where as the next instigated the formation of a group.

Edmund Montague Morris Crying Native Child gouache (Available at Masters Gallery Vancouver November 2014)

In memory of Edmund Morris and in appreciation for the other members of the Club, this blog will talk a little bit more about the Canadian Art Club. Membership in the Canadian Art Club included the following important artists whose own reputations surpassed the reputation of the Canadian Art Club as a whole over time:

Edmund Montague Morris

A. Curtis Williamson

Horatio Walker

Homer Watson

Archibald Browne

Franklin Brownell

William Brymner

Maurice Cullen

Clarence Gagnon

Marc-Aurele Suzor-Cote

James Wilson Morrice

Ernest Lawson

William Clapp

Henri Hebert

Phimister Proctor (sculptor)

Archibald Browne Silver Birches circa 1914 (National Gallery of Canada)

One could loosely associate the Club members with “Canadian Impressionism.” Indeed, they are the artists that appear in the scholarly publications about impressionism in Canada (such as Paul Duval’s Canadian Impressionism or in the chapter about Canadian Impressionism in the seminal international publication World Impressionism). Dennis Reid does however cover these artists in a chapter together called “The Canadian Art Club,” in his widely referenced A Concise History of Canadian Art (which is promising for the recollection of the Club as the book was revised in an attractive third edition in 2012).

Ernest Lawson Winter circa 1914 (National Gallery of Canada)

The rhetoric of the Group of Seven is still understood as having been forward thinking and innovative for the time. However at the turn of the century for the artists who would become Club members their impressionistic inspirations would have seemed dramatic to the Edwardian Canadian public. Impressionism has become such a mainstay in the history of Western art that it can sometimes be hard to remember that upon its debut it was radical, not traditional. It was to take many decades before it was accepted fully worldwide. By 1900 just because the ‘artsy’ locals of Montmartre in Paris had become accustomed to Impressionism and Post-Impressionism already, does not mean that the average conservative upper middle class Torontonian would be comfortable with the newly introduced art. Thus the paintings that the Club members would have liked to exhibit would have seemed innovative and forward thinking similarly to the Group of Seven’s earliest exhibitions.

William Brymner Harvesters (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

None of the members of the Club would be considered extremely drastic in their desire to change the prevailing trend of Academic painting. Dennis Reid adroitly refers to these artists as ‘tentative modernists.’ For some the original French Impressionism may even have been considered “too different.” A selection did get aspiration from the above, but many looked to European Schools that either were precursors to, or subdued contemporaries of, the French Impressionists. This includes the French Barbizon School, British En plein Air Painting (such as the Newlyn School) and the Hague School in the Netherlands.

Jan Hendrik Weiseenbruch The Shipping Canal at Rijswijk 1868 (Hague School artist)

Henri-Joseph Harpignies The Painters Garden at Saint-Prive 1886 (Barbizon School artist)

Samuel Lamorna Birch Spring Morning, 104 (Penlee House Gallery, Penzance) (Newlyn School, British En Plein air artist)

These modern Canadian artists were embracing a less constrained loosening of their brushstrokes and an attention to the effects of light. Morris and Williamson were concerned by the lack of ingenuity on Toronto’s art scene; and sympathized with a growing number of artists that felt the Academic style of painting was getting too stale and outdated. The Club members merely wanted to find the opportunity to inject a little bit of pizzazz into their paintings without criticism. Thus an exhibiting conglomerate of some of Canada’s most intuitive and talented artists of the time was formed in order to be able to exhibit in lieu of recognition in established annual exhibitions.

When Morris and Williamson formed the Canadian Art Club they recruited Homer Watson as their first president, who was already a recognized artist. They successfully held numerous exhibitions before Morris’ death and the disturbances of the First World War. In the end they were well received and the critics were favourable. They therefore were one of the earliest groups of artists to instigate change in regional and national art institutions and in fact helped pave the way for the activities of the Group of Seven a few years later.

Robert Harris A Meeting of the School Trustees, 1885 (National Gallery of Canada) (Academic Painter, Canada)

James Wilson Morrice Algeria 1912 (Canadian Art Club member)(Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

William H. Clapp Spain (Canadian Art Club Member) (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

Before ending this blog I would like to clarify that in calling Academic art ‘stale’ and ‘lifeless’ I am simply relaying what scholarship has told us that the opposition of the time felt. This is not my own opinion, as I am a fan of both the Canadian Art Club and Academic art. I enjoy both for different reasons and recognize that they both form a significant part of the history of Canadian art.

Paul Peel A Venetian Bather, 1889 (National Gallery of Canada) (Academic Painter, Canada)

I hope you enjoyed the variety of painting styles pictured in this blog, and when you think of the greatness of the Group of Seven remember the Canadian Art Club too!

Here is a selection of paintings by Canadian Art Club artists that are past highlights sold at Masters Gallery. Enjoy!

Franklin Brownell Market, Ottawa (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

William Brymner Castle Mountain, Rockies 1892 (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

Maurice Cullen Hoar Frost, Snow 1922 (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

Edmund Montague Morris Guides, Camp (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

Marc-Aurele Suzor-Cote Spring time, St. Lawrence North Shore 1920 (Past highlight sold at Masters Gallery)

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