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James Wilson Morrice: Painter of Light and Shadow

James Wilson Morrice: Painter of Light and Shadow

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James Wilson Morrice: Painter of Light and Shadow

191 pagine
2 ore
May 26, 2008


James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924) was a Canadian painter of extraordinary passion and simplicity whose canvases and oil sketches are valued throughout the world and cherished in Canada as our first real examples of modern art.

Though cut short by chronic alcohol abuse, Morrice’s restless bohemian life was spent in constant motion. From the colourful canals of Venice to the sun-drenched markets of North Africa to the snowy streets of Quebec City, he was, as his friend Henri Matisse described him, "always over hill and dale, a little like a migrating bird but without any very fixed landing place."

In James Wilson Morrice, Wayne Larsen chronicles the creative but often troubled life of this early cultural icon as he travels in search of the colours, compositions, and subtle effects of light that would inspire a revolution in Canadian art.

May 26, 2008

Informazioni sull'autore

Wayne Larsen is a Montreal artist, editor, and writer whose work has appeared in a wide variety of publications. Currently, he teaches graduate-level journalism at Concordia University and is the author of A.Y. Jackson: The Life of a Landscape Painter and James Wilson Morrice: Painter of Light and Shadow. He lives in Verdun, QC.

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James Wilson Morrice - Wayne Larsen

James Wilson Morrice


Wayne Larsen

Wayne Larsen is a Montreal-based newspaper editor, columnist, teacher, and landscape painter who has written extensively on the arts and media since his first byline in 1979.

He is currently editor-in-chief of the Westmount Examiner, a multi-award-winning weekly that serves Montreal’s most affluent suburb. He also teaches journalism at Concordia University and lectures on Canadian art at cultural venues around the city. His freelance career has included editing several books and working as a copy editor at Reader’s Digest Canada.

James Wilson Morrice: Painter of Light and Shadow is the second biography he has written for the Quest Library Series. The first, A.Y. Jackson: A Love for the Land, was published in 2003.

He lives in Montreal with his wife, art historian Darlene Cousins, and their two grown children, Nikolas and Bryn-Vienna. While working, he usually listens to The Stranglers, Tom Waits, and R.E.M.


is edited by

Rhonda Bailey

The Editorial Board is composed of

Lynne Bowen

Janet Lunn

T.F. Rigelhof

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James Wilson Morrice

Copyright © Wayne Larsen, 2008

All rights reserved. No part of this publication may be reproduced, stored in a retrieval system, or transmitted in any form or by any means, electronic, mechanical, photocopying, recording, or otherwise (except for brief passages for purposes of review) without the prior permission of Dundurn Press. Permission to photocopy should be requested from Access Copyright.

Editor: Rhonda Bailey

Index: Darcy Dunton

Design: Jennifer Scott

Printer: Marquis

Cover and frontispiece photo courtesy of McCord Museum, Notman Photographic Archives/ II-132.337.

Library and Archives Canada Cataloguing in Publication

Larsen, Wayne, 1961-

        James Wilson Morrice : painter of light and shadow / Wayne Larsen.

Includes index.

ISBN 978-1-55002-818-8

      1. Morrice, James Wilson, 1865-1924. 2. Painters--Canada--Biography. I. Title.

ND249.M6L38 2008      759.11      C2008-900383-7

1  2  3  4  5  12  11  10  09  08

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts and the Ontario Arts Council for our publishing program. We also acknowledge the financial support of the Government of Canada through the Book Publishing Industry Development Program and The Association for the Export of Canadian Books, and the Government of Ontario through the Ontario Book Publishers Tax Credit program, and the Ontario Media Development Corporation.

Care has been taken to trace the ownership of copyright material used in this book. The author and the publisher welcome any information enabling them to rectify any references or credits in subsequent editions.

J. Kirk Howard, President

Printed and bound in Canada.

Printed on recycled paper.

To Darlene, for knowing Syd, and everything after.


Tracing the shadowy figure of James Wilson Morrice through history is no easy task; most existing sources disagree on nearly all dates, and the man himself left very little behind except undated sketches and canvases. I owe my greatest debt to my wife, Darlene Cousins, for all her help in putting together the most accurate account possible. Without her research skills and patience, this book would not have been possible.

A big thank you to Annie Champagne for tracking down and photographing Morrice’s Paris studio; to Robert N. Wilkins for his first-hand accounts of Tunis and insights into Montreal history; to my daughter, Bryn, for her sharp-eyed proofreading, and to my son, Nik, for all his technical help.

And, of course, many thanks once again to Rhonda Bailey for her editorial wisdom and enthusiasm for this project from the very beginning.

When all was prepared for flight he said, Icarus, my son, I charge you to keep at a moderate height, for if you fly too low the damp will clog your wings, and if too high the heat will melt them. Keep near me and you will be safe.

— Thomas Bulfinch, The Age of Fable


Prologue: On the Quai des Grands Augustins

1      A Mansion in the Square Mile

2      The Privilege of Floating Over Things

3      Fontainebleau Forest to the Brittany Coast

4      A Face in a Window

5      Tales of the Boulevardier

6      Winter in Quebec

7      Under the Blazing Sun

8      Downward Spiral

9      Paris Will Never be the Same

10    No Fixed Landing Place

Chronology of James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924)

Sources Consulted


James Wilson Morrice at age 34, photographed in the winter of 1900 during one of his many visits to Montreal.


On the Quai des Grands Augustins

As the River Seine winds its way through the heart of Paris, the murky green waterway narrows considerably when it passes on either side of Île de la Cité and the famous Gothic towers of Notre Dame Cathedral. On the Left Bank, overlooking the ancient stone quays, there still stands an old building at 45 Quai des Grands Augustins. It is six storeys high, with trendy restaurants along the ground floor. There is nothing to make it stand out from the other old dockside buildings along the street; in fact, a first-time visitor could easily miss it altogether.

On a bright autumn afternoon in 1899, a young Parisienne named Léa Cadoret made her way through the traffic of pushcarts and horse-drawn carriages and stopped at No. 45, then a whitewashed stone building that had obviously seen much better days. She grunted softly as she pushed open the heavy front door and made her way into the entrance hall. The first thing she did was hold her breath against the smell – that terrible blend of garbage, dirty laundry, and cat urine. The concierge was nowhere in sight, as usual, but there were a few children running around by the stairs in the courtyard, their screeches broken by the occasional shout from an angry mother in a window somewhere high above. They paused and smiled, one of them offering a polite Bonjour, Mademoiselle! as the stylish young woman brushed past and hurried up the stairs, her big skirts rustling and her expensive shoes tapping quickly on the rickety metal steps.

As Léa climbed higher and higher up the narrow, winding staircase, the children’s shouts below were gradually replaced by the faint notes of a flute coming down from the floor above. By the time she reached the third-floor landing, stepping carefully so as not to slip on the dangerously loose floor tiles, she could recognize the music. She had heard the melody dozens of times before, played on that same flute, but she didn’t know its name or the composer. Tacked to the apartment door was a piece of yellow paper with the name J.W. Morrice written in thick black pencil. Léa knocked. No answer – just the lilting flute melody from somewhere inside. She knocked again, louder this time, and the music stopped. She heard those familiar footsteps approaching, a few groans from the sagging floorboards, and the door opened.

You are early, Morrice said. I’m glad. He held the door open and stepped back, for there was barely enough room for one person to pass through the cluttered array of battered steamer trunks, boxes, and packing cases piled just inside the entrance.

Morrice was a short, dapper man with a neatly trimmed brown beard, a shiny bald head, and a long, aristocratic nose. He wore an immaculately tailored grey suit and a dark blue tie with white speckles. As usual, his elegant appearance stood out in complete contrast to his dingy living quarters.

Léa followed Morrice inside and looked around with a sour expression on her round face. The apartment was just as squalid as ever. You should hire a maid, she said, but Morrice only laughed as he opened his flute case, gently unscrewed the instrument into three sections, and lovingly placed each into its velvet-lined compartment.

The apartment was always a matter of contention between them. She could not understand how he could live and work in such dirty, smelly quarters. The bedroom was dark and tiny, and the kitchen was an unspeakable mess. The only real furniture in the largest room was a ragged old couch piled high with books, clothes, newspapers, and Morrice’s cherished collection of wooden palettes. The rest of the space was Morrice’s studio – two easels, a chair, and dozens of canvases leaning against the peeling brown wallpaper. Strewn across the unswept floor were spent paint tubes and small wooden panels depicting everything from colourful Paris street scenes to snowy Quebec winters.

Hanging from one of the easels was Morrice’s black umbrella; he once explained that he used it to judge the darkness of his paint when he mixed colours. Léa was not sure what he had meant by that, but she did know he was a talented and widely respected artist. She paused to admire the canvas he was currently working on – a beach scene of Saint-Malo, with a blue sky, a darker blue ocean, and a colourful cluster of small tents on the beige sand. Only a few patches of white canvas were left to be filled in.

I hope to finish it tonight, Morrice said. But first, a drink or two, shall we?

Léa nodded, and Morrice immediately prepared to go out. He cleaned two small brushes, placed them into his sketch box and found a few wooden panels to paint on. Meanwhile, Léa paused by one of the three front windows and looked out through the grime-smeared glass. There was the Pont Neuf, thick with afternoon traffic. Across the river, to the left, was the famous Louvre museum, which housed many of the world’s priceless art treasures. To the right were

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