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, 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, painted in 1901 or 02, 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.

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.

Until now, Morrice had painted mostly landscapes; Blanche, exhibited in 1912, is the first of a series of portraits and model studies that he will pursue for a number of years, particularly during World War One, when travel was more difficult.

At the beginning of the war, in February 1915, Morrice visits Cuba with Canadian friends. He often came back to Montréal, usually around Christmas; the visit of 1914, unfortunately saddened by the death of both his parents, will prove to be his second to last.

The artist often brought paintings with him, and sent them to the annual Salons: Art Association of Montreal, Royal Canadian Academy. Canadian critics, more aware of the recent developments of art in Europe, as well as of Morrice's Parisian success, finally recognize his talent. But it is too late: disappointed by the lack of sales, Morrice stops exhibiting in Canada after 1916.

The post-war years are saddened by illness (stomach problems linked to alcohol abuse) but, around Christmas 1920, well again, Morrice spends a few weeks in Canada, painting around Québec City. He then spends a few weeks in Trinidad, before going back to Paris.

Trinidad marks the beginning of a new period: having abandoned the wood panel sketches for "watercolours", Morrice transposes its technique, lighter and more fluid, into the paintings done after his trip: freer style, very light paint, contours underlined in a slightly darker tone; a reminiscence of Gauguin, perhaps, but the Canadian Morrice prefers colder tones.

The watercolours he brought back from a trip to Algiers at the beginning of 1922 continue in this style. We can even find an echo of Cézanne, which Morrice admired, in some Algerian compositions, although Morrice never tried to use Cézanne's complex spatial constructions, prelude to Cubism, which the Canadian painter never understood.

In spite of a relapse of his illness, Morrice goes to Tunis in January 1924; he does not have time to work: he dies on the 23th, after a few days in hospital.

Above: Copyright © 1998, Lucie Dorais

Morrice spent almost thirty-four years in Europe, mainly Paris, where he achieved notable success. However, he never completely lost touch with his native land, and played a significant role in the evolution of Canadian painting. It is through his works and those of other painters who were then studying and working in Paris, that young Canadian artists were able to learn about recent developments in European art. Other painters certainly influenced Morrice during his career. The artistic stimulation he sought from them, rather than a weakness, gave this diffident man the freedom to express the poetry and music that were central to his own creativity. (p. 23)

This paragraph: Copyright © 1985, National Gallery of Canada

Last updated: April 30, 1998

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