BlogApril 12, 2020

James Wilson Morrice, On Shipboard

Sold by Alan Klinkhoff Gallery from the Collection of Mitzi & Mel Dobrin

James Wilson Morrice (1865-1924), On Shipboard, circa 1906-07. Oil on wood panel. 5 1/4 x 6 3/8 in (13.3 x 16.2 cm). The Collection of Mitzi & Mel Dobrin. Sold by Alan Klinkhoff Gallery.


Morrice spent his whole working life in Paris, travelling endlessly to find new subjects. Hundreds of drawings and small sketches on wooden panels tell us what he saw, but not how he got there. Two drawings in his Sketchbook #5, used mainly in Paris and Saint-Malo (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), were done on an ocean liner, and one of them was later used for the beautiful canvas En Pleine mer (private collection, but often reproduced). First shown at the 1904 Salon de la Société Nationale in Paris, it shows tourists on lounge chairs and little girls walking, all looking at the artist; on the other side of the receding sunny deck, a lone woman in black cannot keep her eyes off the deep blue water. Morrice had crossed the Atlantic twice in 1903, to and from North America, for a rare summer visit; he stayed here two months. We know by Edmund Morris’ Diaries that he joined him and Maurice Cullen to paint in Beaupré and Ile d’Orléans, but so far no work, not even a drawing, can be linked to that trip home, making En pleine mer its unique witness.


This Dobrin sketch, which bears the same English title as the canvas, is quite different in size and mood; as there is no drawing related to it, we can presume that it was painted on board the ship. Here we are much closer to the little group, almost part of it, but nobody is paying any attention to the artist, mesmerized by the endless expanse of the sea. The ship is also different: a simple cloth awning, instead of the white metal superstructure of the ocean liner. Probably a small excursion boat or a local ferry, of a type abundantly reproduced in old postcards. The passengers are likely tourists, but not necessarily from far away: the costume of the woman at left points to Northern Brittany. Morrice often visited Saint-Malo between 1896 and 1907, and two detailed drawings in his circa 1903 Sketchbook #5, mentioned above, document a boat excursion from there: page 44 shows a small paddle wheeler approaching the quay where a group is waiting; after a leisurely two-hour trip up the river Rance, they reached medieval Dinan, where Morrice drew a 16th century house on Place Saint-Sauveur (page 41).

Our sketch is from a later visit, after the old paddlewheeler had been replaced by longer, modern excursion and ferry boats; all had an open area at the back, covered by an awning. Since we don’t see any of the small islands that dot the sea around the old walled town, we are probably en haute mer, on a longer excursion rather than a ferry crossing to Jersey or even Southampton, the boat is too small. Local and non-local tourists (and the artist) share the same space, a mingling typical of bathing resorts like Saint-Malo; but here, as in Morrice’s brilliant Place Chateaubriand of 1902-03 (private collection), the visitors are sitting down (she on a wooden bench or box, her leg folded under her), while the locals are standing...

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