Klinkhoff's sale of Important Morrice canvas tops current auction record
It has become a rare event to find a major Morrice canvas on the market, especially an early ‘Salon’ painting. La Place Chateaubriand, Saint-Malo is, with the even larger La Communiante (MNBAQ), among the best works by Morrice in the Impressionist style. It had quietly premiered in Paris in 1903, but Montreal had to wait until 1907. Even then, the anonymous critics, and no doubt the public, were still slightly puzzled by the ‘new’ style.
On April 1st, 1907, the opening day of the RCA annual exhibition (held that year in Montreal), the Montreal Herald called the painting “the gem of the exhibition", commenting upon its "striking" treatment as "half-Whistlerian, half-Turneresque"; The Gazette retreated behind a long description of the subject depicted; only did The Witness recognize the painting as representative of "the most modern method of the impressionist style, the colors flung on with almost brutal power, it strikes one as being almost grotesque at the near view, yet seen at the proper distance it resolves itself into one of the most artistic productions of the exhibition." Three days later he/she was still under the shock of this "frankly, even violently, impressionistic picture”, repeating that you had to be at a proper distance to see the “warm, sultry market square portrayed by the hand of a master” (The Witness, April 4). In other words, whereas on the one hand the anonymous writer was aware of something new and exciting, never seen before in Montreal, on the other he/she did not understand stylistically enough what he was seeing to fully appreciate the importance of La Place Chateaubriand, Saint-Malo.
It is difficult today to see what possible violence the Witness contributor could have seen in this serene painting, where all life seems to be suspended for our enjoyment. The two women in the foreground are enjoying a leisurely conversation at Le Continental, the most famous of the many cafés bordering the square; Morrice was also there, well protected from the bright sun (a rare thing in Brittany!) by the generous foliage. At left, two women in local costume advance under the plane trees; and a third Bretonne, with her basket, visually links the two zones of the composition: local (working, standing), and tourist (at leisure, sitting). The red of the awnings and the bright blue patches of sky further animate this joyous composition. If Morrice had not titled the painting for the 1903 Paris Salon of the Société Nationale des Beaux-arts, we would never know that we are in Saint-Malo, a city more famous for its beaches and its old walls, which he had already painted abundantly.
La Place Chateaubriand, in front of the medieval Chateau, is the first public space encountered within the walls; it is the heart of the old city, a neutral meeting place where a Breton woman, hurrying home from the market, can make eye contact with the visiting tourists. Buchanan saw in this choice of subject a sign of maturity, the artist being able to set aside "the conventions of what it was right and proper to paint in Brittany"1, although we can now recognize it as a deliberate attempt to paint an Impressionist picture, a plein air subject taken from daily life that allowed for the study of light effects. Knowing Morrice, there is no surprise in his choice of a café setting, giving us a rare image of the Place Chateaubriand seen from the café rather than towards it, as all postcards do (the large café, now renamed Le Chateaubriand and part of a hotel, is still well frequented and much photographed).
Morrice’s view is towards the ramparts, hardly visible beyond the heavy foliage. He modified the setting to suggest some intimacy, while at the same time making it more ‘generic urban’. The related sketch in the Art Gallery of Ontario, which shows the composition with no change, could have been painted after the canvas rather than before it, when Morrice decided to double the foliage at the top (all the darker portion in the center), to check the total effect before permanently altering the big canvas; this was done before the Paris 1903 exhibition, as can be seen in the catalogue illustration.
In his centennial history of the [name of previous owner], Heward Stikeman called La Place Chateaubriand the pièce de résistance of the small, but distinguished collection of paintings hanging on the walls of the [previous owner].2 The present building was inaugurated in 1906, after a fire had destroyed the old one. Paintings were sorely needed; as many members were art collectors, gifts were not long in coming; by the end of 1906, a recent Cullen already graced the walls, and a portrait had been commissioned from Robert Harris. The [previous owner's] Minutes for January 28, 1907 record "A letter written by Mr. David Morrice offering a picture by his son, now resident in Paris to be placed in one of the rooms of the [previous owner]."3 The businessman had been among the first to be invited to join the [previous owner's group] after its foundation in 1899, but he resigned soon after over his ‘subscriptions’, which he paid back only in March 1906. A painting by his famous son would further show his gratitude at being reinstated; the choice of the given work was left open, as was that of other works promised to the [previous owner]: the 28th Royal Canadian Academy exhibition, due to open soon in Montreal, would offer an excellent range of good paintings.
Four days into the exhibition, a Brymner and a Barnsley had already been put aside for the [previous owner], but not yet the Morrice (The Witness, April 4). Obviously, the decision between it and another of his pictures “now on its way from Paris” was made soon after, and the gift was gratefully accepted. From 1907 until the present day, except for the rare occasions when it was lent for exhibition purposes (including all four Morrice retrospectives), La Place Chateaubriand, Saint-Malo has gracefully presided over the Princess Patricia Room in Montreal’s vénérable [previous owner]. And now it is at the threshold of a second, no doubt as brilliant, life.
Text by Lucie Dorais, M.A., J.W. Morrice Scholar
Copyright © Lucie Dorais and Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, 2011
Provenance, Exhibition Record, Illustrations
Provenance: David Morrice, father of the artist; Gift of the above to an Important Private Collection, Montreal
Exhibited: 1903 Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-arts, Paris, Grand Palais, April 16 to June 30, cat. 969, ill. in cat. 1904 Salon Triennal des Beaux-Arts, Antwerp (Belgium), ca Aug. 20 to Sept. 25, exact dates unknown. 1905 5th Exhibition of the International Society of Sculptors, Painters, and Gravers, London, New Gallery, Jan. 9 to Feb. 11, cat. no. 193. Traveled to Manchester (Mar. 31 to May 6), Burnley (May 23 to ?), Bradford (Oct. to Dec.). 1907 28th Royal Canadian Academy, Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, April 1 to 27, cat. no. 149. 1911 Exhibition of Works by the Members of the "Société des peintres et sculpteurs" (Formerly The Société nouvelle de Paris). Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, Nov. 16 to Dec. 26, cat. no. 107, ill. Traveled to Chicago (Jan. 4 to 28, 1912), St. Louis MO (Fev. 4 to ?), Boston (dates unknown). 1912 16th Annual Exhibition, Pittsburgh, Carnegie Institute, April 25 to June 30, cat. no. 224. 1925 Memorial Exhibition of Paintings by the late James W.Morrice, R.C.A., Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, Jan. 16 to Feb. 15, cat. no. 71. 1927 Exposition d'art canadien, Paris, Musée du Jeu de Paume, April 10 to May 10, cat. 136. 1932 Special Exhibition of Canadian Art, (Imperial Economic Conference), Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, July 18 to Jan. 28, 1933, cat. 12. 1937 James Wilson Morrice, R.C.A. 1865-1924 Memorial Exhibition, Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada, Nov. 25 to Dec. 27, cat. 97. Traveled to Toronto (AGT, Jan. 8 to ? 1938), Montreal (AAM, ? Feb. 1938). 1939 Loan Exhibition: Nineteenth Century Landscape Painting, Montreal, Art Association of Montreal, Feb. 13 to March 2, cat. 32. (Opening of the new wing; Morrice, in "British" section, is only Canadian). 1965 James Wilson Morrice: 1865-1924, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 30 to Oct. 31, cat. 68, ill. Traveled to Ottawa (NGC, Nov. 12 to Dec. 5). 1977 J.W. Morrice, Vancouver Art Gallery, June 3 to July 3, cat. 11. 1985 James Wilson Morrice 1865-1924, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Dec. 6, 1985 to Feb. 2, 1986, cat. 33, ill. Traveled to Québec (MQ, Feb 20 to April 20), Fredericton (BAG, May 15 to June 29), Toronto (AGO, July 25 to Sept. 14), Vancouver (VAG, Oct 9 to Nov 23).
Literature & Reproductions:
1903: Salon de la Société Nationale des Beaux-arts, Paris, Grand Palais, April 16 to June 30, cat. 969, ill. in cat. 1911: Exhibition of Works by the Members of the "Société des peintres et sculpteurs" (Formerly The Société nouvelle de Paris). Buffalo, Albright Art Gallery, Nov. 16 to Dec. 26, cat. no. 107, ill. 1965: James Wilson Morrice: 1865-1924, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sept. 30 to Oct. 31, cat. 68, ill. 1971: DES GAGNIERS, Jean: Morrice. Québec, Editions du Pélican, 1971, Plate 2. Reproductions are in color, but very bad. 1979: LAING, G. Blair: Memories of an Art Dealer, McClelland and Stewart, p. 43. La Place Chateaubriand, Saint-Malo described as "an important canvas". 1985: James Wilson Morrice 1865-1924, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Dec. 6, 1985 to Feb. 2, 1986, cat. 33, ill. 1999: STIKEMAN, H. Heward: Title witheld (confidentiality). Montreal, Price-Patterson, c. 1999, p. 170. Color repr. 2007: BANHAM, Kathryn J.: The Architecture and Painting Collection of the (Title witheld - confidentiality), Montreal, 1899-1920. Montreal, Concordia University, M.A. Thesis, 2007, plate 34.
1903: La Gazette des Beaux Arts (Paris), vol 3 no 30, July 1, 1903, p.51 (illustrates a review of Société Nationale, which mentions Morrice only by name, "last but not least" (in English in text); no mention of any work). 2008: LARSEN, Wayne: James Wilson Morrice : Painter of Light and Shadow. Toronto : Dundurn Press, c. 2008, p. 30.
1. Donald W. Buchanan: J.W. Morrice: A Biography, 1936, p. 25
2. H. Heward Stikeman: Title witheld (confidentiality), 1899-1999, c1999, p. 170.
3. Kathryn J. Banham: The Architecture and Painting Collection of the (name witheld - confidentiality) Montreal 1899-1920, M.A. Thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, 2006, p. 80.