James Wilson (J.W.) Morrice (1865-1923)

James Wilson (J.W.) Morrice (1865-1923)

Born to an affluent Montreal family in 1865, James Wilson Morris was one of the first Canadian painters to embrace modernism and the first to gain widespread recognition abroad, though he did so by moving to Europe for good at the age of 25. Primarily a landscape painter, Morrice studied with the Barbizon master Henri Harpiginies and at the Académie Julian in Paris, where he would live most of his life.

In the pre-war years Morrice became a fixture in the Montparnasse café scene, where he was known for his witty conversation and constant sketching; he made hundreds of oil sketches, some of which he later turned into canvases. He was influenced by the late impressionists but soon absorbed the stronger colours and designs of the fauves. Later visits to North Africa and the Caribbean emboldened his palette further, though his work was always soft-edged and gentle on the eye.

Though Morrice never returned to live in Canada, he kept in close touch with the Canadian art scene and regularly sent paintings back home for exhibition. Every year until 1914 he returned to Canada to visit his family, taking time to paint winter scenes of Quebec. Critic George Woodcock wrote that these paintings, such as The Ferry, Quebec from 1907, “with their distinctive cold light and stark forms… are among the first truly great Canadian paintings.”

The First World War shattered Morrice’s Parisian idyll. He went to London, then accepted a commission as a Canadian war artist. After the war he spent most of his time in North Africa and the Caribbean, both for his health and because he was inspired by the bright colours and light, which mark his later works. He died in Tunis, Tunisia, in 1923.

Morrice was well known in Europe during his lifetime but wasn’t honored by any major exhibitions in Canada until after his death. Today he is considered one of the country’s great modernists and his paintings can be found in many Canadian collections including the National Gallery of Canada and the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In Europe the Musée d’Orsay, Paris, the Hermitage, St. Petersburg, and the Tate gallery, London, among others, hold his canvases.

The National Gallery of Canada bought the original oil painting of The Ferry, Quebec in 1938, 15 years after Morrice’s death. This view of the ferry at Lévis, across the St. Lawrence River from Quebec City, has a childlike, almost naïve charm. The horses and figures in the foreground are little more than dabs of paint and the Wharf and Cape Diamond in the distance are smears of creamy colour. The flat grey sky and the flicks of falling snow are wonderfully evocative; the viewer feels the chill of a Quebec winter’s day just standing before the canvas.

The Ferry, Quebec was the first existing painting to be turned into a print for the Sampson-Mathews program. A.Y. Jackson, born like Morrice in Montreal, was especially keen on including it, as the roster was short on Quebec artists (March in the Beech Woods by Clarence Gagnon, another deceased Quebec master, was printed soon afterwards).1


1 Art for War and Peace: How a Great Art Project Helped Canada Discover Itself” by Ian Sigvaldason/Scott Steedman published by Read Leaf 2015