James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924)

Born in Montreal in 1865, in an upper-class family, Morrice studied Law, but soon decided to devote himself to his true passion, painting. He first goes to London, but soon finds out that all young painters have their eyes on Paris and we find him there in the Spring of 1892.

His first friends are American painters: Maurice Prendergast, and later Robert Henri and William Glackens, three of the artists that will exhibit in 1908 under the name "The Eight". The young artists make sketches in the streets of Paris (L'Omnibus), or on the beaches of Dieppe and Saint-Malo, using little sketchbooks or small wooden panels; the bigger canvases are painted later in their studios.

The Impressionists are now better known in Paris, but Morrice and his friends do not seem to be aware of their technical advances, preferring darker tones, suitable for their night scenes (nocturnes); their idol is the American expatriate James McNeill Whistler, whose ideas on the relationship between painting and music greatly appealed to Morrice (his other passion was music, and he played the flute).

It is not in Paris, but during a visit to Québec, in the winter of 1896-97, that Morrice discovers the brighter colours of the Impressionists, the only ones that can accurately render the bright light of a Canadian winter. He may have tried to emulate the works of his painting companion Maurice Cullen, a young Canadian recently returned from Paris; they spent a few days together at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré.

Morrice does not immediately adopt the Impressionist technique of the divided touch. The paintings done just before 1900 are rendered in a very thick paint, which he then rubs to smoothen the surface; the modulations of colour are then painted over, in very light passages. The results are very subtle harmonies that reveal themselves slowly to the spectator; excellent musician, Morrice has learnt how to include the time factor in his paintings.

Venice at the Golden Hour
Venice at the Golden Hour marks a turning point: if its sky and facades are a last echo of Whistler, we easily recognize the Impressionist touch in the shimmering sunset reflections on the Grand Canal. It is a happy period in the painter's life: he moves to a new apartment overlooking the Seine, travels extensively (France, Spain, Venice), and meets the woman what will share his life, Léa Cadoret. He also make makes new friends: British novelist Somerset Maugham will use him as a model for his poet Cronshaw in Of Human Bondage. And Morrice exhibits more and more, getting good reviews, at least in Paris; Canada is less receptive for the time being.

Morrice's palette becomes lighter after 1903: he uses very diluted paint over a white preparation, but his harmonies are as subtle as before. Paintings done after drawings and sketches brought back from Dieppe, Marseilles, Venice, Montréal and Québec, and later from Concarneau and Le Pouldu in Brittany (long sojourn in 1909-10), show this new style. Some bright colours even suggest a Fauve influence.

Fruit Market, Tangiers
Around 1908, Morrice meets the most famous of the Fauves, Henri Matisse. Both paint together twice in Tangiers, Morocco: in early 1912, and again a year later. The Canadian painter is somewhat influenced by the audacities of the French: some of Morrice's Moroccan works show the growing importance of the decorative effect.


Copyright © 1998, Lucie Dorais
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