The Group of Eight

Florence Mcgil­livray stud­ied un­der Matisse in Paris, then went on to men­tor Tom Thom­son. The ori­gin story of Cana­dian Mod­ernism might have ig­nored one of its ma­jor fig­ures

Canadian Art - - Contents - by Katharine Lochnan and Sarah Stan­ners

In 1930, an anony­mous Ot­tawa Cit­i­zen art critic paid artist Florence Mcgil­livray what, at the time, he prob­a­bly con­sid­ered to be the high­est pos­si­ble com­pli­ment: “[She is] one of the most vig­or­ous of Canada’s women painters. There is noth­ing ef­fem­i­nate in her art.”

Mcgil­livray was an ac­com­plished artist in an era when women were un­ques­tion­ably treated as sub­or­di­nate to men. In the greater nar­ra­tive of Cana­dian art, she is still treated as a foot­note. Yet Mcgil­livray was an artist brim­ming with tal­ent. She clearly made an im­pact on Tom Thom­son, with whom she en­joyed a close per­sonal re­la­tion­ship.

Bring­ing Mcgil­livray out from the mar­gins is cer­tainly due. A closer ex­am­i­na­tion of her men­tor­ship of Thom­son has the po­ten­tial to shift the foun­da­tion story of mod­ern Cana­dian art—that of the lone ge­nius woods­man-painter in­spir­ing the Group of Seven to paint the spirit of a new na­tion from the land. Not only would it al­low a woman into that ori­gin story, but it would also fi­nally iden­tify the source of the Euro­pean in­flu­ence on Thom­son’s work that had, un­til now, been as­cribed to painter A.Y. Jack­son. In truth, Jack­son and Thom­son knew each other on and off for less than two years, and parted ways, per­haps for good, in 1914. Ac­cord­ing to Group of Seven bi­og­ra­pher Ross King, Jack­son and Thom­son spent lit­tle more than 12 weeks to­gether, in close con­tact. The his­tor­i­cal facts of dates and sketch trips re­main, but be­cause Thom­son left be­hind no diaries or thor­ough pri­mary doc­u­ments, he has be­come the his­to­rian’s blank can­vas. A thor­ough ex­plo­ration of Mcgil­livray’s oeu­vre, and its foun­da­tional place in the Thom­son legacy, makes a new pro­logue to mod­ern Cana­dian art his­tory nec­es­sary.

Al­though Mcgil­livray’s art sur­vived, her pa­pers did not, so over the past five decades her story has been grad­u­ally pieced to­gether from sur­viv­ing shards of in­for­ma­tion and re­search by Katharine Lochnan, her great-great niece. In her day, Mcgil­livray was cel­e­brated, but like so many his­tor­i­cal Cana­dian women artists, she has since plum­meted from view. This is largely be­cause she came from a pros­per­ous Whitby fam­ily and was not obliged to make a liv­ing by sell­ing her paint­ings—though she did sell some of them, and also worked as a teacher. She stud­ied at the Cen­tral On­tario School of Art, de­vel­op­ing a Vic­to­rian style that she later taught to oth­ers at On­tario Ladies’ Col­lege, be­fore mov­ing to Paris in 1913. There, her work un­der­went a rad­i­cal trans­for­ma­tion. While liv­ing in Mont­martre and at­tend­ing the Académie de la Grande Chau­mière, she stud­ied un­der Matisse, who in­sisted on sub­mit­ting her paint­ing Con­tent­ment (1913) to the Salon. This recog­ni­tion led to her elec­tion for two terms as pres­i­dent of the In­ter­na­tional Art Union.

Mcgil­livray en­tered the atelier of Lu­cien Si­mon and Émile-rené Mé­nard, mem­bers of the Bande noire, a lit­tle-known group based in Paris and Brit­tany who took their in­spi­ra­tion from Gus­tave Courbet and his Re­al­ist cir­cle, and were friends of Gau­guin and Les Nabis. The Bande noire sought to cre­ate a moral, som­bre and bour­geois art, em­ploy­ing solemn tones, sharp con­trasts of light and dark and thick lines char­ac­ter­ized by spon­tane­ity, sim­plic­ity and naïveté. Mcgil­livray ex­per­i­mented with a range of Postim­pres­sion­ist styles be­fore find­ing her own.

Dur­ing the sum­mer of 1914, she spent four months in Venice, where she at­tended the Bi­en­nale. On her way back to Paris via the Ital­ian Lakes, she dis­cov­ered that war had been de­clared. Chaos en­sued. She man­aged to cross the Alps only to be stranded for three weeks in Switzer­land. Forced to leave most of her sketches and art ma­te­ri­als be­hind and cram ne­ces­si­ties into a knap­sack, she trav­elled in the first Bri­tish train out of the war zone from Geneva to Paris, ob­serv­ing French sol­diers, weep­ing fam­i­lies, Ger­man pris­on­ers and Bel­gian refugees. Af­ter cross­ing the Chan­nel, she boarded the SS Royal Ed­ward and ar­rived in Que­bec on Septem­ber 26, 1914. She had enough space to bring back one tiny sketch­book: a col­lec­tion of bril­liant wa­ter­colours in­spired by Turner and Whistler, painted dur­ing her time in Venice be­fore Europe was rav­aged by war.

Even­tu­ally, Mcgil­livray set­tled in Toronto, and quickly es­tab­lished her rep­u­ta­tion as a pro­fes­sional artist. Like the Group of Seven, she fo­cused on the Cana­dian land­scape, trav­el­ling up the Labrador and BC coasts. Dur­ing the win­ter of 1916, she vis­ited Thom­son in his “shack” and be­came his men­tor. He called her “one of the best,” and “the first of the artists to rec­og­nize in­stantly what he was try­ing to do.” She ap­pears to have con­veyed to him knowl­edge of the Re­al­ist, Nabis and Fau­vist pal­ettes and pic­to­rial con­struc­tion.

Mcgil­livray re­ceived as much recog­ni­tion as was then pos­si­ble for a woman: she was elected to the Na­tional As­so­ci­a­tion of Women Painters and Sculp­tors in New York; she was made an As­so­ciate of the Royal Cana­dian Academy of Art, a mem­ber of the On­tario So­ci­ety of Artists and a found­ing mem­ber of the Cana­dian So­ci­ety of Painters in Water Colour; and her work was pur­chased by the Na­tional Gallery of Canada and placed in mu­se­ums across the coun­try.

Thom­son’s last, most con­fi­dent and am­bi­tious works clearly demon­strate Mcgil­livray’s in­flu­ence. She vis­ited him at Ca­noe Lake in spring 1917 and likely painted with him; Mcgil­livray’s Birch Trees and Lake (ca. 1917) and Thom­son’s Spring in Al­go­nquin Park (1917) are re­mark­ably com­pa­ra­ble. Fol­low­ing Thom­son’s death in July of that year, Mcgil­livray moved to Ot­tawa. An in­vi­ta­tion to her March 1917 ex­hi­bi­tion was dis­cov­ered in Thom­son’s paint­box. ■

The Þrst ma­jor sur­vey ex­hi­bi­tion of Florence Mcgillivrayõs work will take place at the Mcmichael Cana­dian Art Col­lec­tion in Klein­burg, On­tario, in 2020, co-cu­rated by Katharine Lochnan and Sarah Stan­ners.

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