"Canal in Brittany"
Emily Carr, "Canal in Brittany," oil on panel, 1911, 16.5" X 23.5". Courtesy Granville Fine Art.
EMILY CARR (1871-1945)
It’s difficult to reconcile the early watercolours of Emily Carr — products of a genteel education, and a puritan, provincial upbringing in a colonial backwater — with the power and intensity of her later paintings. She identified her own early work for its lack of emotional content, its flat colour and tentative style, but managed to transition to create one of the most important bodies of work of any painter who ever worked in Canada, a remarkable record of the Aboriginal settlements, culture, and landscapes of the west coast.
Part of that transition can obviously be pegged to her travels to the Haida, Kwakiutl, and Nuu-chah-nulth villages along the coast of British Columbia, and her discovery of her own passion for “Indian art” and the weathered and quickly disappearing evidence of the villages’ great artists. But Carr’s technique, and her understanding of art as an emotional expression, was given a great push by a two-year sojourn in France. The period, 1910 to 1912, was so important to the development of Carr as an artist, that her career could easily be seen in two parts — before and after France.
Carr had already been pursuing a career as an artist for some years — it was a respectable pursuit for a young woman of the upper middle class — but her education thus far, including schools in San Francisco and London, hadn’t advanced her technique much. Almost 40 and teaching children’s art classes in Victoria, she pooled her savings together and planned a trip to France, where she expected to find clues to the future of painting. She set off with her sister, Alice, landing in Paris in 1910 (her travels with Alice would be recorded in a charming set of illustrated journals she produced in the early part of the century) and enrolling in the Studio Colarossi, which would prove to be another staid exercise in classical form.
With a letter of introduction to the Scottish painter Harry Gibb, Carr began to discover the joyousness and freedom that was percolating through the ateliers of Paris, outside of the formal art schools. She managed to avoid some of the more radical styles — Cubism and Surrealism — but started introducing a bolder palette and stronger technique to her work, abandoning watercolours for a time to experiment with rich Fauvist colour panels and decisive brushstrokes.
With her health in constant flux, she abandoned Paris for short periods of time in the countryside and in Sweden. She spent brief sessions of intense work in the Brittany region of France with Gibb, painting the canals and streetscapes of the provincial towns, and developing the beginnings of the bold style that she would bring to her coastal landscapes years later.
Canal in Brittany was painted in 1911 in the town of Crecy-en-Brie, where Carr had gone to paint under the loose tutelage of Harry Gibb. The painting is evidence of Carr’s emerging technique, its contrasting colours and abstract forms giving it a strong, decisive cast far removed from the light-handed touch of her pre-France work. In 1971 Doris Shadbolt wrote in the Vancouver Art Gallery’s catalogue for its centennial Emily Carr retrospective “It was the vibrant energy of French painting which spoke to her. She was now painting, though on a small scale, with vigour and a new sensuous and formal awareness.”
It would take Carr another decade and a half to really establish herself and her technique, with recognition from Lawren Harris and inclusion in an important show at the National Gallery of Canada. But the lessons learned in France stuck with her throughout her artistic development, and were evident in the acclaimed work she did much later in her career.
This is one of several historical Canadian paintings brought to the newly created Granville Fine Art in Vancouver by Winnipeg-based collector Ken Macdonald. He bought Canal in Brittany at auction in 2004, where it had been placed by members of a Victoria family who had bought it from Carr’s estate. Within the six years since, Macdonald has sold it, seen it come up at auction again, and bought it again. It’s still a remarkable piece of evidence to the transformation of Emily Carr’s technique.
— Jill Sawyer