Ernst Neumann's Painting of A Historic City Street
The fine painting by Ernst Neumann, signed and dated 1952, illustrated above, was presented and sold to us under the title of Saint-Henri, a borough in Montreal's southwest. The title was not indicated anywhere by the artist or on a label of any sort. With what we identified as the SunLife Building on the horizon, in futility, we attempted to locate the precise location. Accepting the location as it was sold to us, we subsequently illustrated the Ernst Neumann on www.klinkhoff.ca, where Saint-Henri was offered for sale.
To our surprise and delight, we received an email from a visitor to our site advising us that the location is in fact Saint-Norbert, a street just below Sherbrooke and off Montreal's famous Saint-Lawrence Boulevard, boulevard Saint-Laurent. The gentleman was generous in the lead he delivered, identifying himself as a participant in a well documented sit-in/occupation to save the homes on Saint-Norbert Street from demolition in 1975.
Some comments posted to an internet based discussion group, contributed by people whose parents lived on the street in the Muhlstock/Neumann days, and others by neighbours in the 1960s and 70s do describe the poverty, filth and even vermin. (1)
The Ernst Neumann painting of Saint-Norbert Street at the Corner of de Bullion (Looking West) makes for a most interesting discussion, notably in complement with an important Louis Muhlstock painting, Basement Room, Condemned Building, Saint-Norbert Street (ca. 1938-1940). (2) Whereas the Neumann painting describes a view from the corner of de Bullion looking west along Saint-Norbert, a street of only three small blocks in length, running from Hôtel-de-Ville on the east to Saint-Laurent Boulevard at its west end, Louis Muhlstock's piece describes a basement, and as such, evades context with the nature of the neighbourhood. Neumann offers that context; his composition is cold, stark, spartan and bleak, portraying a mood that strongly supports Dr. Esther Trépanier's categorisation of rue Saint-Norbert as part of an urban slum. (3)
The subject matter poses the obvious question as to what attracted Neumann to this short and insignificant street. (Curiously, Sam Borenstein and Fred Taylor also painted Saint-Norbert Street.) Neumann didn't live in the neighbourhood. His colleague, Louis Muhlstock, lived on Sainte-Famille Street, five or six blocks from Saint-Norbert Street and a couple of blocks past the École des beaux-arts. The Monument National was located at the west end of Saint-Norbert and down Saint-Laurent a few blocks. Neumann had been doing some of his fine etchings in various parts of the city, but often of more "distinguished" buildings and areas. Maybe he simply happened upon great urban composition, showing a variety of types of city homes. We note, looming in the distance, is the Sun Life Building.
Extraordinarily, little Saint-Norbert Street made news in the mid 1970s when Montreal Mayor Jean Drapeau's urbanization plans called for the demolition of the precise block of houses Ernst Neumann had painted fully 23 years earlier. In many ways, the debate in the mid 1970s was in line with much of what John Little had been concerned about in his paintings, urban areas being razed or otherwise changed, uprooting their original city dwellers. Interestingly, however, and in no small part attributable to the demolition of the William Van Horne mansion at the corners of Stanley and Sherbrooke Streets in 1973, Montrealers of diverse income and social brackets were increasingly paying attention to the ongoing demolition. There is a fabulous description of the factors and factions at play in the Saint Norbert sit-in or occupation of 1975 presented in Eliot Perrin's Master's thesis titled "It's your city, only you can save it!": Save Montreal's Grassroots Opposition to Urban Redevelopment, as background:
Throughout the summer of 1975, Save Montreal members joined demonstrations against the planned demolition of row houses along Rue St-Norbert. The city, having passed a resolution to expropriate the homes, planned to evict the 50 residents (who occupied 40 apartments) and demolish the buildings in favour of a municipal public works yard. When announcing the plan, Le Devoir noted the irony in tearing down homes amidst an ongoing housing crisis. Despite the civic administration claiming housing was a priority, they were determined to demolish the homes for a parking lot. In response, residents formed the St. Norbert Tenants' Association to combat the decision, arguing for renovation as an alternative to demolition. (4)
Noteworthy are the comments made in 1975 by Jane Broderick of Save Montreal who participated in the "occupation" or "sit-in":
And that was a beautiful little row of houses, very modest you know, not of great architectural significance but a nice little row. And it was only one side of the street because the other side was the Bon-Pasteur [...] That whole row, it was one block, was threatened and that was sort of a big thing because there were people who occupied the buildings. So we got involved in that, a lot of people, a lot of my friends from Save Montreal got involved in that. And we stayed down there for a month [...]. (5)
At this time, according to Eliot Perrin, Montreal was suffering a housing crisis, an acute shortage of low-cost housing. That these houses were to be demolished to be replaced by a municipal yard didn't make a lot of sense. To support that the Saint-Norbert Street houses should be saved, the Tenants' Association of the residents made a request to architects Phyllis Lambert and Michael Fish for an assessment of the houses. They concluded that "..... the structures were structurally sound and that renovation was a cheaper option to constructing new units to re-house the families." (6) Suspicions of the occupiers was that the plan was to get rid of the tenants and owners, aged, many immigrants and other low-income or fixed-income people and instead replace the property with a higher value development. For some ten years the space upon which those properties had been, was replaced by a parking lot. Then some years later, sure enough, a higher income residential development was put up.
There is a wonderful photograph taken by Alain Renaud for Le Devoir to be found online at www.spacing.ca (7) where you will note underneath the image of the fallen houses, showing almost exclusively the debris, a caption reads "Rue Saint-Norbert, nature morte à la façon Montréalaise, avec stèle et souvenirs des chambres de bois…"
Canadian art collectors with an interest in purchasing important urban subjects are encouraged to purchase Ernst Neumann's Saint-Norbert Street at the Corner of de Bullion (Looking West), 1952 for a price of $4,500.
To view additional urban subjects by various artists available for your purchase we invite you to view our selection of Urban Scenes.
1. Chris Erb, "What happened to rue St-Norbert?," SpacingMONTREAL (blog), 30 May, 2009, http://spacing.ca/montreal/2009/05/30/what-happened-to-rue-st-norbert/.
2. Distinguished art historian Esther Trépanier illustrated this Muhlstock painting in a section titled “The Slums of Louis Muhlstock” in her publication Jewish Painters of Montreal. Witnesses of Their Time 1930-1948. Montréal, Éditions de l'Homme, 2008, p. 72.
4. Eliot Perrin (2016) “It’s your city, only you can save it!”: Save Montreal’s Grassroots Opposition to Urban Redevelopment. Masters thesis, Concordia University., p. 58.
6. Ibid., p. 59.
7. Chris Erb, "What happened to rue St-Norbert?," SpacingMONTREAL (blog), 30 May, 2009, http://spacing.ca/montreal/2009/05/30/what-happened-to-rue-st-norbert/. Original image: Alain Renaud, « Rue Saint-Norbert, nature morte à la façon Montréalaise, avec stèle et souvenirs des chambres de bois… », Le Devoir, Montreal, Thursday, September 25, 1975, p. 3.