Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse at McMichael

On the Beach, John Lyman
On the Beach, John Lyman

In the days when Paris was the centre of the art world, the City of Light attracted young painters from everywhere who wanted to be in the centre of it. The two Canadian artists, James Wilson Morrice and John Lyman, left Canada and ventured to Paris to be part of the evolving art scene. There they encountered the French painter, Henri Matisse. Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse at the McMichael Gallery is the first exhibition to consider the connection between the three artists.

McMichael Gallery, photo Stephanie Spencer
McMichael Gallery, photo Stephanie Spencer

I was very excited when I was invited to the McMichael Gallery in Kleinburg, mainly because I haven’t heard much about Morrice and had never heard about Lyman so I was curious to learn more. The gallery is home to such stunning paintings by the Group of Seven so I knew I’d be in for a treat. Additionally, the serene, wooded grounds surrounding the gallery beckon a walk: a nature hike would make my weekend complete.

We took a guided tour, which helped clarify how the artists’ encounters in France and North Africa influenced their art. We also began to understand how this led to the development of Canadian Modernist art.

James Wilson Morrice (1865 – 1924) was a significant Canadian landscape painter. He studied law from 1882 to 1889 and then went to England and France to study painting. Morrice spent much of his life in Paris, but also travelled to Venice, Morocco and Cuba and made regular trips back to Canada. He made many connections in the intellectual circles of Paris, while also remaining in touch with the Canadian art world. Morrice became a friend of Henri Matisse and later shared a studio with him in Tangiers, North Africa from 1911-12. He is sometimes referred to as “Canada’s first modern artist”.

John Lyman (1886-1967), who is a generation younger than Morrice, went to Paris in 1907 after briefly studying architecture in Canada. Lyman studied with Matisse, who influenced his art forever after.

The galleries highlight Morrice’s and Lyman’s quest for light, colour, balance and serenity as they follow Matisse.

Matisse once said that he wanted his art to have the effect of a good armchair on a tired businessman. Much of the art in these exhibits has that effect.

Morrice Cafe Le Pasaje
James Wilson Morrice, Cafe El Pasaje, Havana

This scene by Morrice shows a warm, sunny day in a cafe. It is a peaceful setting. There are no other patrons in the cafe, just a few people walking in the distance. The bright yellow trees and golden glow of the sun on the street and houses is very suggestive of warmth. The lightness of the paint makes the scene light and airy. There is no rushing in this setting. We can just sit back and enjoy the scene for as long as we like.

Even though Morrice and Matisse painted together, Morrice incorporated what felt right to him about Matisse’s style, but maintained his own restrained and soft approach to painting.

Lyman on the beach
John Lyman, On The Beach (Saint- Jean-de-Luz)

The above south of France beach scene was painted by Lyman in 1929/30. The sun is out in full force and people are in the water cooling off. It is a relaxing scene. Even the couple, the man in a suit and the woman all in black, seem absorbed in the leisure activities. They lend one story to this scene. Why would they go to the beach fully clothed? But there are other stories. Why is there a man in uniform talking to the bather on the left? When you first look at this painting, what attracts your attention? For me it is the woman with the orange parasol – she is totally obstructed from our view. Who is she? The scene is still soothing, but we are left with questions.

Interested in being creative? Work your imagination at the Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse exhibit:

When you visit the McMichael Gallery, study the style of an artist, look closely at the colours, shapes, brush strokes and intensity. What are the feelings that come across? Try it even if the painter is “not your style”. Then go out and try to visualize scenes you encounter as though you are seeing through that artist’s eyes. What would he have seen? You could walk around the McMichael grounds and re-imagine various scenes as a Morrice or Lyman painting. Or you could look out from a window in your home and imagine how the artist would translate it to canvas.

Most of us think of the turn-of-the-century as an era when Canadian artists painted northern wildernesses and totem poles. This collection uncovers how much more was going on and how great Canadian artists fit into the world landscape.

Take this rare opportunity to see a large collection of works by three important figures in Modern art.

The Morrice and Lyman in the Company of Matisse Exhibit runs from October 10, 2014 to January 4, 2015 at the McMichael Gallery, 10365 Islington Avenue, Kleinburg, 905-893-1121.


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