ArtworksJames Wilson MorriceLe Lion de Belfort, Paris, 1892-1894 (circa)1865-1924Sold
Inscriptionsinscribed, ‘2’ (verso, left border) and ‘No 2’ (verso, right border, on the side) and titled, 'Place Belfort / Paris' (verso, bottom centre); studio stamp, 'STUDIO J.W. MORRICE' (verso, middle).
Estate of the Artist.
Private collection, Montreal, before 1985;
By descent to private collection, Westmount, Quebec.
The title written on the back, “Place Belfort / Paris”, is a simplification for Place Denfert-Rochereau, dominated by Le Lion de Belfort. It is a scaled down (1/3rd) copy by Auguste Bartholdi of his red sandstone lion carved from a site overlooking Belfort, near the German border. The lion raises its head in defiance, having just stopped an arrow with its paw, commemorating the French Resistance during the Franco-German war of 1870. Both monuments were inaugurated in 1880, while Bartholdi was also working on the Statue of Liberty for New York. Like her, the small Lion is a hammered shell of copper supported by an iron structure; unlike her, it is painted black to imitate bronze. (Another copy, in pink granite at 1/10th, commemorates Queen Victoria’s 1897 Diamond Jubilee in Montreal’s Dorchester Square.)
Place Denfert-Rochereau marks the south limit of the Montparnasse district, a name made famous after World War One by the École de Paris: Picasso, Modigliani, Chagall, among others, but in 1890 it was already home to 30% of the thousands of young artists attracted by the “Ville Lumière” and its art schools. Hundreds of studios were quickly built for them, with tall windows facing north; many more were built before 1914, and their occupants still animate the area.
One of the most famous, the Cité des artistes at 9, rue Campagne-Première, was probably not yet opened when Morrice arrived in Paris, in January 1890, to fulfill his artistic dream; two years later, according to the catalogue of the 1892 Art Association of Montreal Spring Show, he was living there, but we don’t know until when. It is a long block housing 128 studios, piled on three stories and a basement facing a narrow courtyard, hidden behind a typical Parisian façade (fig. 1 photo by author, Oct. 2008). Each space being small, the common areas are prone to a rich social life. It is perhaps there, and not at the Académie Julian as often said (they studied a year apart), that Morrice met the Bostonian Maurice Prendergast. The American’s favourite activity, until his departure in August 1894, was to walk around Montparnasse to sketch walking women, as his Paris Sketchbook and many watercolours testify. The Canadian often accompanied him, but if he also carried a sketchbook, it is lost.
Unlike Prendergast, Morrice was more interested in landscape than in the moving figure. Le Lion de Belfort is an urban landscape, with very little animation. The artist was sitting in the Parc Jacques-Antoine across the street, with the Boulevard Raspail on his left. He did not really need a sketchbook, drawing his composition directly on his small, oblong wood panel, of the same type and dimensions as those used by Prendergast. The dark monument on its stone pedestal, in the left third, is just one element partly hidden by the young trees, to which the artist gave as much importance; the building in the center, on the other side of the square, is quickly put down: nothing tells us of its historical importance as an 18th century Customs pavilion by Ledoux, part of a system encircling Paris to collect taxes on goods entering the city. The colours are applied very quickly, and never meet, allowing the underlying drawing to show everywhere; and they are sombre, various shades from pale grey to grey-green. Until, after a while, we discover... joyous flecks of red, white and pink right in the centre! The lone promeneuse adds to this animation, but more by the white of her skirt than by her movement.
In a few months, all that space will be taken over by the annual Fête du Lion de Belfort; barracks and rides will cover the whole Square, spilling into the radiating streets (below left). In 1895, Morrice will furiously draw all the excitement on eight pages of his sketchbook (#3, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts); page 30 (fig. 2) shows our Lion seen from the same park as here, but a temporary theatre and the balloon-shaped seats of a small Ferris wheel fill the right half:
At that time the artist lived closer to the Square, at 34 rue Notre-Dame-des-Champs, since demolished. In October 1899, after a short stint in Montmartre, he will move to the Quai des Grands-Augustins, where Montparnasse meets the Seine, but he will often return to its southern part, to meet friends at the Chat Blanc café or at the Closerie des Lilas restaurant.
Copyright © Lucie Dorais, 2022