By David Aurandt, Director/Curator at Riverbrink Art Museum
The RiverBrink Art Museum collection comprises works of art by a number of artists important in the history of Canadian art and culture. Lawren Harris is one. He was a founding member of the Group of 7, a major influence on his colleagues, and prominent among those who responded to the restlessness among painters in Europe and America. From mid-to-late-19th century, a growing number of Canadian artists gradually threw off what they experienced as stifling constraints of tradition and conventions. Many of them felt a burgeoning enthusiasm to develop a new voice in form and content at home in Canada. The birth of a unique modern style was clearly evident by the time of the first Group of 7 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1920.
Modernism in painting stretches from Edgar Degas to Joan Mitchell, that is, from “Realism through American Abstract Expressionism”. Harris and the Group were in the middle of it. The main influences on those who would be Group members came from German Romanticism/Expressionism and French Impressionism. Harris studied in Germany, A.Y. Jackson in France; Lismer, Varley, and MacDonald came from England; Carmichael went to school in Toronto, Johnston in Germany and Philadelphia; Thomson was largely self-taught under the influence especially of Harris and Jackson. The new subject was “the land”, especially wilderness; the new style a version of Impressionism with some reverberations of Expressionism. RiverBrink has some significant examples, one being Tom Thomson’s sketch for his iconic “Jack Pine” painting, which is also our Museum logo.
But subjects other than landscape also attracted these artists, and in those other interests we find several unique paintings at RiverBrink. Two of them are the “…in the Ward 1…” by Harris, and another sketch by Thomson, an oil painting on wood panel, dated pre-1914. An early guess at the subject was that it is Thomson’s shack in the Don Valley. The sketch is done at night or just at twilight. The artist liked to paint when available light would make for expressive colour possibilities that were not available in daylight, as he often did in Algonquin. Looking closely at this painting we do not see his shack but a low building more like a contractor’s shed, and behind are orange lines indicating the structural metal of a taller building under construction. This turns out to be what we know today as “The Studio Building”, still visible along the Rosedale Valley Road which becomes Aylmer as you drive from Bayview up to Yonge Street through “Lawren Harris Park” in Toronto. The Studio Building was initiated and funded by Lawren Harris and Dr. James MacCallum, designed by architect Eden Smith, well-known for his arts and crafts design style. For a time after 1914 when the building was completed, Thomson shared a space, but he was not able to afford the very small rent and not comfortable in the city anyway, so he did not stay or work at the Studio Building for long. This Tomson painting is particularly interesting because it is quite unusual, not a landscape as we know so much of his work from the woods north and east of Toronto.
The Jack Pine sketch was the reason for the Lawren Harris study to be away from RiverBrink for several months. Thomson’s painting to the National Gallery of Canada last year as a collegial-museum favour in exchange for their borrowing of our “Jack Pine sketch….” In partnership with the Art Gallery of Ontario, The National Gallery needed that small work for their exhibition: Tom Thomson: The Jack Pine and the West Wind-Masterpiece in Focus. This painting had also been on loan to the NGC for their participation in Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, an exhibition organized by the Dulwich Picture Gallery in London in 2011. Thus our painting travelled with this remarkable exhibition to England, Norway, and Holland, then back to the McMichael Canadian Art Gallery before returning to us in 2014. For RiverBrink’s agreement to loan the Thomson once more, we were offered the exceptional opportunity to send the National Gallery a work they would analyze and provide cleaning and conservation for, something we would not have been able to do on our own or afford otherwise. The Harris returned in March this year, and the painting and original frame were wonderfully cleaned and restored, the colours looking as they must have looked to the artist within hours of him painting it. Once more, the painting’s importance is partly due to its rarity. It is not one of the more familiar landscapes, nor an abstraction. Harris here simply and boldly depicts two women in conversation on a street, perhaps Chestnut Street in early 20th century Toronto. For RiverBrink it is demonstrates how important our small collection is, and its absence last year is a very good example of how museums share their collections, resources, and expertise.