James Wilson Morrice

James Wilson Morrice

1865 - 1924
CAC RCA

Born into an affluent Montreal family in 1865, James Wilson Morrice studied law, and was called to the Bar of Ontario in 1889. However, while studying, his interest in painting had been growing, and he ultimately decided to fully devote himself to his art. His change of career proved to be an excellent choice, and Morrice ultimately became one of Canada’s finest Impressionist painters.

After exhibiting with both the Royal Canadian Academy and the Art Association of Montreal in the late 1880s, Morrice left Montreal for Europe in 1890 and would make Paris his permanent home. While living in Paris, Morrice enrolled at the Académie Julian and would later study with Henri Harpignies. Morrice also traveled extensively, throughout France and later Venice, North Africa, the West Indies, the Caribbean and Tunisia in search of new inspiration. As well, Morrice would routinely return to Montreal until his father died in 1914. It was during one of these visits that Morrice would meet Canadian painter Maurice Cullen in Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré, and together they made excursions into the Quebec landscape to paint.

In 1896 Morrice began to use small wooden panels for his oil sketches, referred to as pochades, and would develop select sketches into larger canvases. By the early 1900s Morrice had achieved great success internationally, regularly exhibiting in the Paris salons and receiving positive critical response. He began in 1896 with the Salon National shows, then from 1905 to 1913, exhibited with the Salon d’Automne and from 1908 to 1913 with the Société Nouvelle. He also exhibited in London, Brussels, Scotland and the United States. Morrice’s use of color varied, as did his subject matter, ranging from moody, atmospheric scenes of Paris and Quebec to the intense and exotic colors of Caribbean or North African locales. However, his palette and rendering was more restrained in comparison to fellow artists working in Paris at the time, such as Henri Matisse, who Morrice would later meet in Morocco. Although in close contact with contemporary art movements, Morrice maintained his own unique style through balanced compositions and delicate rendering of atmosphere, savouring the scenes with sensitivity and delicacy.

Morrice possessed great wit and geniality, which made him a favorite personality in the Parisian art scene. Constantly frequenting popular cafes and restaraunts, Morrice would be in the company of painters and writers such as James McNeill Whistler, Arnold Bennett and Somerset Maugham, who portrayed Morrice as a minor character in his books.

Morrice remained in France for the majority of World War I, and in 1918 he was commissioned to paint the Canadian troops in Picardy. From 1919 and onwards, Morrice frequently headed for warmer climates when his health began to deteriorate, ultimately passing away in Tunisia in 1924. His fame in Canada grew posthumously, as it was not until after his death that major exhibitions in Canada were held. Through his work, other young Canadian artists were able to learn about the progressive European art scene. Morrice’s remarkable artistic legacy only increases with time and he is universally regarded as a pivotal figure in Canadian art.