LOT 129

1898 - 1996

Town of Cobalt
oil on canvas, circa 1935
30 x 36 in, 76.2 x 91.4 cm

Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000 CAD

Sold for: $205,250

Preview at:

Private Collection, Toronto

Catalogue of the Sixty-third Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, Art Gallery of Toronto, 1935, listed page 15
Catalogue of British Painting and Sculpture, Canadian Painting and Sculpture, British and Canadian Water Colours, British and Canadian Graphic and Applied Art, International Photography, Canadian National Exhibition, 1935, listed page 50

Art Gallery of Toronto, Sixty-third Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, March 1 – April 1, 1935, catalogue #134
Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto, Catalogue of British Painting and Sculpture, Canadian Painting and Sculpture, British and Canadian Water Colours, British and Canadian Graphic and Applied Art, International Photography, August 23 – September 7, 1935, catalogue #258

Blue Moons come along more often than Yvonne McKague Housser’s paintings of Cobalt, Ontario, come to market. Their artistic accomplishment, inventive resonance with the Group of Seven, inclusion in Group exhibitions, representation in major public collections, and topicality have ensured their place in discussions of the period’s art. They have continually renewed their relevance in exhibitions as diverse as Industrial Images (1987 – 1988); Picturing the Americas: Landscape Painting from Tierra del Fuego to the Arctic (2015 – 2016); and the forthcoming Uninvited: Canadian Women Artists in the Modern Moment (2020 – 2021). Their aesthetic achievement is the high mark in Housser’s long career, and after being in one family collection since the mid-twentieth century, Town of Cobalt makes a public appearance that will enrich her legacy.

Housser was born in Toronto in 1898 as Yvonne McKague, and attended the Ontario College of Art from 1915 to 1919. She exhibited regularly at the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, with the Ontario Society of Artists, and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In addition to showing with the societies, she was an invited exhibitor to the final three Group of Seven exhibitions (1928, 1930 and 1931) and was a founding member of, and regular contributor to, the Canadian Group of Painters (1933). Travel and study in Europe in the early 1920s influenced her emphasis on design, volume and a higher keyed palette than the Group commonly used. Her fine art career paralleled trends in Canadian painting, and her career as an educator was no less influential.

In August and September of 1934, she took an extended sketching trip to Cobalt. The preceding months contributed to one of the most sensational years in the history of Canadian art, when Bess Housser divorced her husband Fred Housser and Lawren Harris left his wife Beatrice (Trixie). Lawren and Bess married, and the ongoing affair between Yvonne and Fred simmered, as gossip swirled. Fred was well known as a partisan of the Group, who published its first history in 1926, and earned a living as a business journalist for the Toronto Daily Star. During the 1934 sketching trip, Yvonne wrote Fred nearly daily. Amid her complaints about the weather and the locals, the letters are replete with her infatuation for him. In one letter she described the previous grey day, the rain that morning and how she painted in the “French Cobalt.” A few days later her excitement about the weather described the present lot perfectly: “the sky is that deep vivid energizing blue…that comes in the first cloud openings after long grey weather, there is nothing tranquil about it—but it’s alive, vivid—with determined masses of clouds moving past it—and clear-edged hard brittle buildings cut themselves in a clean-edged mass against it. It is my idea of how a northern day should look.”

Of the documented Cobalt canvases, only two are 30 x 36 inches. One is Silver Mine, Cobalt (1931), formerly in Fred Housser’s collection (now, collection of Museum London). The other is French Cobalt, first listed in the March 1935 Ontario Society of Artists catalogue as also being 30 x 36 inches. Now it is clear the work presented to Heffel as Town of Cobalt, circa 1935, is most likely French Cobalt. It is also tempting to say that Yvonne’s extraordinary optimism for her relationship with Fred is infused into paint. They married on June 28, 1935.

We thank Gregory Humeniuk, art historian, writer and curator, for contributing the above essay.

Estimate: $30,000 - $50,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

Although great care has been taken to ensure the accuracy of the information posted, errors and omissions may occur. All bids are subject to our Terms and Conditions of Business. Bidders must ensure they have satisfied themselves with the condition of the Lot prior to bidding. Condition reports are available upon request.