Looking back on my time with Marc-Aurèle Fortin
Marc-Aurèle Fortin was amongst the first Canadian artists I visited regularly. He was living with his wife at the time, mid 1950s, in a house on Saint Urbain street near Laurier where he lived in a truly bohemian style.
Nothing seemed to have ever been dusted and it was impossible to find a place to sit down. Broken window panes had been repaired with adhesive tape, paintings and paint tubes were everywhere - under the table, in cupboards, in every corner and under the sofa. Both he and his wife were extremely nice people and seemed to like me. "Marco," as she called him, was always dressed like a derelict who had slept in a gutter. A diabetic, he had to get exercise and went everywhere on an old bicycle. I liked his work very much and his prices were very reasonable, but in those days nothing was easy to sell. Fortin was very interesting to listen to but he always told me that "his own people," meaning French Canadians, took him for a house painter when he told them of what his work consisted. Up until that time, he said he had only had some recognition in Mexico where he must have been some years earlier. Mrs. Fortin was also an intelligent and quite intellectual person. Like her husband's father, hers had also been a judge. She had an unfortunate squint, one eye looking almost at right angles sideways, and one had to get used to this at first. When Fortin bought his house in Sainte-Rose and moved there with Archambault and his girlfriend, Mrs. Fortin did not go with them. They had not been married very long, had not been getting along and "Marco" told me that he had given her $5,000 and wanted to be rid of her. But I am ahead of my story.
Usually I bought earlier works, which he had in abundance even though most of the paintings were in storage with Galerie L'Art Français, who later said they had an exclusive contract for selling the works. In those days, Fortin never bought materials for painting, but when I brought casein colours, brushes and good paper I could come back a few days later to get some nice casein paintings These were not his best work any longer by any means, but still remarkably original in style and firm in design and execution. Prices were always very modest and never discussed.
Montreal's best known framemaker was Antoine's. He had an art gallery attached to his framing business and was frequently surprised to see how many Fortins I had from the artist and left with him for framing. He had never been able to get any and asked me if I would be willing to take him along the next time I visited Fortin. This we soon did and I thought I might be doing Fortin a favour by bringing Antoine Ulrich with me. When Antoine asked for some prices, the watercolours I had been buying for twenty dollars were for Antoine $250 and $300, far more than what they could be sold for at that time. After mentioning the prices Fortin disappeared into the kitchen. We waited for maybe twenty minutes and then started to ask where he was. Mrs. Fortin told us he had taken a bicycle to go to a tavern to drink wine. For some reason never disclosed to me, Fortin did not want anything to do with Antoine. Antoine bought nothing but when I returned the next day, prices had reverted back to the twenty dollar level.
On one occasion, I discovered a beautiful painting of Baie Saint Paul in winter with people in heavy coats in front of the church. There were some sleighs and a dark sky. It was in perfect condition in a pile with other things of lesser quality and I decided to buy it. Fortin mentioned his modest price and I agreed. Then he insisted I had to see the "mis en valeur" on a wall. He found a large four inch nail and drove it through the middle of the panel into the wall. I think he was teasing me and expected me to scream. I did not take the bait, admired the painting, which really was one of his very good ones, paid for it and left. I had the hole repaired, no problem for my restorer.
Fortin asked for some assistance in connection with his move to Sainte-Rose and my wife and I picked him up and drove him there. On the way he told me some strange and disquieting things. He had engaged a man by the name of Archambault as a chauffeur and had given him money to buy a car. Archambault had the car registered in his own name and Fortin wanted to know if this was "comme il faut"! I told him to make sure the registration was put into his own name and promptly, but I am quite sure this was never done. The old stone house Fortin had bought had a gaping crack in its outside wall and this was to be repaired. A bathroom was to be improved and the cost of this seemed to me totally out of line, a multiple of what it should have been. I had recently had some work done at my house and had a good means of comparison. Visiting him in the hospital I was asked by a doctor some questions about Archambault. There was no medicare yet and the doctor had sent a bill. Archambault had come to see the doctor, asked him to send a bill for a much higher fee and split the difference with him. The doctor had thrown him out and threatened a criminal charge.
Fortin had always told me that he would never be poor because his father had left him some money in a trust account that he could not touch and he had a regular income from this, which he could live on modestly. He died destitute nevertheless. His father's will was in the hands of a lawyer of dubious reputation. A clause in the will permitted withdrawal of funds in events of emergencies. Between the lawyer and Archambault all the money was gradually withdrawn. Had Rene Buisson not looked after Fortin in the last years of his life, I really wonder what would have become of him.
When Fortin's second leg had to be amputated, he was left totally at the mercy of Archambault. I found it very difficult to visit as the situation was so tragic. I arrived one day when Fortin was sitting in his bed, holding his beads and saying the Rosary. I waited until he had finished, gathering my thoughts. The bed sheet he had, originally white, was dark grey, closer to black. Fortin looked emaciated and probably was hardly fed. I was powerless. More and more Fortin forgeries were coming on the market and it became known that Archambault's girlfriend was the source of the copies and fakes. One evening, Archambault, with whom I had never wanted any business dealing, unexpectedly rang my door bell at home. He had three large paintings in his car and wanted to sell them but would not come into the house, or maybe I did not ask him. He spread the three canvases on my front lawn. They were very good and I would have loved to buy them. He gave me the price and I accepted under the condition that I would give a cheque made out to M.-A. Fortin. I have never seen a man roll up three canvases and depart more quickly than he did.
On another occasion, following a brief telephone conversation, two gentlemen arrived at the gallery carrying three paintings covered with wrapping paper. I had understood the paintings were to be offered to me for sale. After inspection I declared I was not interested in buying them and was asked for a reason. I was known to buy paintings by Fortin and always had some on display or in stock. I explained that I do not usually give a reason when I turn down a painting because it so often offends. I was told to feel free to make any remark, no-one would take offense. I then declared that in my opinion the three paintings were fakes. At this point the gentleman who had until then not said anything introduced himself with a card, showing he was a lawyer. He told me that they had suspected the paintings were spurious, already had another opinion to this effect and asked me to give my opinion in writing as there would very likely be a lawsuit. After some thought, I refused to do this although under normal circumstances I had always given my opinion freely in writing and appeared as a witness. I explained to the lawyer, asking him to bear in mind this very unusual situation. I reasoned that Fortin was completely in the power of Archambault who was much involved with the selling of fakes. He later was convicted on another charge and sentenced to a jail term. Archambault could force Fortin to testify that he had painted the pictures and although, under subpoena, my testimony would have to be that the paintings were in my opinion forgeries, a judge would take the word of the artist, although he was in his dotage. My advice was to not sue while Fortin could be forced to sign just about any declaration presented to him by Archambault.
In a Fraser Bros. auction sale .I once bought an outstanding Fortin winter landscape of Baie Saint Paul with the church, horse and sleighs, deep snow and icicles hanging from the roofs. It was framed in a narrow, very cheap frame in which Fortin sometimes sold his best paintings, though usually he sold them unframed. I had a client for the picture and hung it up in his office the next day and sold it. My client insisted that I should take the painting away again and return it properly framed. While unfitting the painting, I was astonished to find not the single board the picture had been painted on but a second board, used as backing. This had an equally lovely and quite similar complete, signed Fortin winter landscape painted on it. Both oils were equally fine and amongst the best I had ever had! I was amused to see an item in the papers in April 1993, reporting a similar occurrence. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts discovered an early Pellan work that the artist also had used as a backing. They were advised that the principle "finders keepers" applied, and they are pleased to keep it in their collection.
In my early years when I bought paintings from Fortin he often mentioned two other collectors, Buisson and Bonneville, both from the Rouyn area. One was a Molson Brewery distributor, the other a newspaper publisher. We each probably bought about one hundred or more paintings. I sold them at a small profit and they kept theirs, saw the value climb at a great rate and sold them some many years later at the then prevailing very high prices.
Fortin and I had several conversations with regards to his relations with the dealers and depositors at Galerie L'Art Français. These conversations are at variance with much I have heard since. Mr. and Mrs. Lange, a Belgian couple, had founded Galerie L'Art Français in the early 1930s. Business must have been extremely difficult - the work by even the best artists could not be sold. They had rented a premises on Laurier Avenue. Fortin was one of the true creative artists with a compulsion to paint and quite indifferent about selling, so his work just accumulated and storage became a problem. The Lange's offered Fortin free storage and he accepted. I believe he also promised to give them exclusive selling rights, but this must have been done very informally and Fortin certainly paid no attention to this. In my experience the Langes were difficult to deal with. In my early days I did some business with them, occasionally buying something but far more often selling or giving them paintings on sale or consignment. After they either had bought something or taken it on consignment one did not hear about it any more. When a consigned painting had been sold, you only knew that it was no longer on the wall and after a few visits it was finally admitted that it was sold. Getting paid was the next hurdle and it took many visits until finally a cheque was issued. Thirty days credit or postal service did not exist. I was never even told a cheque was in the mail! Mr. or Mrs. were too busy to write one and you had to come back many times. Fortin mentioned how Lange one day told him he could not get his lease renewed and would have to give up his business or buy the building. Fortin would lose his storage facilities. Fortin was the one who then lent Lange the money to buy the building on Laurier Avenue. Just before Fortin died, he was sued by the Langes for a huge amount of money for framing, restoration, storage, damages for breach of contract and other delinquencies. I believe this was done to establish a claim against which the Langes could lay claim to the paintings they had in storage. What became of this claim I do not know.