Canadian Impressionists: Helen McNicoll & Laura Muntz

By: Dara Vandor

“Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery”

For many, Western-style Canadian art begins with the Group of Seven. Anything earlier in our collective cultural memory feels distinctly imported, and indeed many of the paintings hanging in our museums that date from before the 20th century were painted by a wayward European in search of adventure and fresh views rather than by locals. In the linear construction of Canadian art history, the Group of Seven are positioned as the first artists to seek out a distinctly Canadian form of expression. They are seen as the first to view Canada as a place unique unto itself, to forge a style that dealt with Canadian concerns, emerging fully formed as a counterpoint to the Continental style. Yet this vibrant and famous burst of creativity in the early part of the 20thcentury owes a large debt to one of the movements that preceded it—Impressionism.

Though stemming from an admiration of the French Impressionists, Impressionism in Canada was belated, emerging only after the style had gone out of fashion in France. Pre-internet, movements often had a clear epicentre, rippling outwards to find fresh audiences and interpretations elsewhere. Impressionism, born in Paris, gave a new vocabulary to artists in places as diverse as Scandinavia, Turkey, Mexico, Australia, Japan and beyond.

The critic Harold Bloom theorized that all literary works are a form of plagiarism, a “creative misreading” of an artist’s precursors. Under this conception, an artist, inspired by another, filters those ideas through his or her own lens, creating something “new,” or more precisely, better adapted to a particular set of personal circumstances. Canadian Impressionism borrowed the unblended colours and broken brushstrokes from French Impressionism, and applied these techniques to “landscapes very unlike the rural countryside surrounding Paris, with artists figuring out how to transport what they learned in France to native subjects and audiences.”

The particular qualities of Canadian light and scenery necessitated certain stylistic adaptations, creating an Impressionism that was unique, a relative once removed from its European cousin. At the core of the movement was the exhortation to view the world anew, to capture a single moment in time, to divorce painting from what the artist “knew” in favour of pure observation.

Lot 47 – HELEN GALLOWAY MCNICOLL,
THE ORCHARD AT ELMHURST DAIRY, MONTREAL, c.1910

Alison Gillmor, in her review of A.K. Prakash’s book, Impressionism in Canada: A Journey of Rediscovery, explained that “many [Canadian] artists explored scenes of rural labour and quiet Quebec villages. Others observed the unique qualities of winter light and the dramatic changes of northern seasons. The most iconic mark of Canadian Impressionism might be the glint of blue shadows in snow.”

At the turn of the 20th century, travelling to Europe for further training was common for those who could afford it. There were few art schools in the young nation of Canada where a young artist could gain exposure to modernist movements, and many flocked to London, or Paris, which then stood as the artistic capitals of the world. Helen McNicoll and Laura Muntz were among these aesthetic pilgrims, Canadians of some means and considerable talent who travelled to Europe in search of an artistic education. We are pleased to offer paintings by both artists in our September Canadian Fine Art auction—lot 46 by Muntz and lot 47 by McNicoll.

Both artists readily embraced Impressionism, two of only a handful of Canadians to fully do so. At the end of the 19th century, the Canadian art market was dominated by the Hague School and Barbizon landscapes, leery of European modernism. Only a small number of Canadian collectors bought modern and Impressionist paintings, the majority of whom were based in Montreal. Indeed, the first exhibition of Impressionist works was only held in Montreal in 1892 at W. Scott and Sons Gallery, nearly three decades after the style emerged in Paris.

While Impressionism never truly took hold in Canada—Samantha Burton describes its general reception as “frequently ambivalent and sometimes overtly negative”—both Muntz and McNicoll’s work earned positive reviews. Norma Broude and Tamar Garb explain that Impressionism was often perceived as a “feminine style” due to the soft, powdery way in which artists approached their subjects, which might explain why female Impressionists received more positive reviews than their male counterparts.

Lot 46 – LAURA ADELINE MUNTZ LYALL, WOMAN IN A WIDE-BRIMMED HAT, c.1897

These accolades were short-lived. Burton notes that when McNicoll was at the height of her career, Cubism was the established avant-garde movement. By the time that Impressionism began to gain a little ground in Canada, artists like the Group of Seven and Emily Carr had leapt wholly into Post-Impressionism. However, Impressionism in Canada represented a break from conventional handling of paint and subject, and can be viewed not solely as an offshoot of a European movement, but as a step towards a new way of seeing that gave birth to the vibrancy and breadth of 20th century art. Impressionism in Canada functions as a sort of “missing chapter,” and a too-brief moment in the search for a uniquely “Canadian” art.

We invite you to take a closer look at the work of McNicoll (lot 47) and Muntz (lot 46). Both paintings have been researched in detail and are accompanied by essays particular to them.

About our september canadian Fine Art Auction

Our major Canadian Fine Art Auction will be conducted live on Thursday, September 17.

For more information about the auction, previews and how to register to bid please click here.

We also invite you to take a closer look at available work by other Canadian masters in our downloadable, digital Canadian Fine Art catalogue.

We are always available to answer any questions you may have, or provide condition reports and/or additional images.

Please do not hesitate to contact us at canadianart@waddingtons.ca or by phone at 416-847-6196.


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