AUTO CAS QMG RCA
1905 - 1960
La nuit se précise
oil on canvas
signed and dated 1952 and on verso signed and titled
7 3/4 x 12 in 19.7 x 30.5 cm
Estimate: $30,000 - $40,000
Sold for: $35,100
Preview at: Heffel Vancouver
Acquired from the Artist by Gérard Lortie, Montreal
Fred S. Mendel, Saskatchewan
A gift from the above to Miriam Shields, Saskatchewan
By descent to the present Private Collection, Calgary
François-Marc Gagnon, Paul-Émile Borduas (1905 - 1960), Biographie critique et analyse de l'oeuvre, 1978, pages 313, 315, 348, 350 and 488
This work is included in François-Marc Gagnon's online catalogue raisonné on the artist's work at www.borduas.concordia.ca/en/about/index.php
Saint-Hilaire Studio, Dernière exposition…..des derniers tableaux, April 26 - 27, 1952, catalogue #10
Foyer de l'art et du livre, 445 Sussex St., Ottawa, Exposition de tableaux et d'encres, October 10 - 20, 1952, catalogue #9
There is no doubt that La nuit se précise (Night Takes Shape) from 1952 is a little gem in Paul-Émile Borduas’s works. But it is also an important discovery. It appears on a list of 18 oil paintings shown in his studio at Saint-Hilaire in 1952 for only two days, April 26 and 27, in an exhibition titled Dernière exposition…..des derniers tableaux…..à la maison de Saint-Hilaire (Last exhibition…..of the most recent paintings…..in the Saint-Hilaire house). The circumstances in which this exhibition took place were both tragic and mysterious. When it was held, it reflected Borduas’s recent return to painting after a long period of inactivity during the winter of 1951 - 1952. His family had left him the previous year; when he came back on October 19 from a short trip to Toronto where his works had been presented at The Picture Loan Society, he found the house empty. Mrs. Borduas, probably exhausted by his insistence on being the only breadwinner of the family and to live exclusively from his painting, had left him, taking their children with her. She was a nurse and had decided to go back to work.
The title of the exhibition had an ominous element, especially in French, where the word “dernier” is repeated twice. As a matter of fact, Borduas sold la maison de Saint-Hilaire soon after, and went to live with his brother Adrien, before leaving Canada for the United States.
This is not all. When trying to reconstruct the content of this exhibition in the 1970s, which was known only from a list of works, I could not find a single one of the 18 paintings exhibited, and have not had any luck in locating the actual paintings since then! It is as if the whole exhibition had disappeared by magic. Even though some – six or seven – of the same titles reappear at the Foyer de l’art et du livre show in Ottawa, October 10 - 20, 1952, and La nuit se précise appeared on a list of paintings belonging to Gérard Lortie, I could not locate them. I imagine some of them could have been exhibited at the Rose Fried Gallery in New York, since Borduas mentions in a letter to his daughter Janine, dated May 2, 1953 from Provincetown, “un certain nombre de mes peintures sont déjà en vente à la galerie Rose Fried” (a certain number of my paintings are already on sale at the Rose Fried Gallery). Regarding the whereabouts of our painting, it was acquired by Fred S. Mendel, a well-known Saskatchewan-based art collector and industrialist, who was a major financial contributor to the museum in Saskatoon that bears his name, the Mendel Art Gallery. Mendel then gave it to his friend Miriam Shields, from whom it passed by descent through her family into a private Calgary collection.
There is one sign of the whereabouts of the painting, which is at the same time an interesting suggestion of its presentation, on the back of the painting. One can read there the English word “TOP” on the section of the stretcher that corresponds to the side of the painting. If one follows that suggestion, the picture still makes sense, even if it was not the intention of Borduas, who had signed it at the bottom on the right. Lortie, for instance could have written “HAUT” rather than “TOP” if he had wanted to do so.
The importance of this painting is that it is the missing link between the last Automatist paintings and the New York production of Borduas. It shows a will to fragment the “objects” of his previous paintings into palette knife strokes, creating an effect similar to an analytical Cubist painting. Even the minimal range of colours (from black to white) points in the same direction. On the other hand, the tragic overtone of this small painting, where the black of the “night” mentioned in the title is witness to the difficult period in the life of Borduas that it belongs to, also gives it a moving lyrical dimension.
We thank François-Marc Gagnon of the Gail and Stephen A. Jarislowsky Institute of Studies in Canadian Art, Concordia University, for contributing the above essay.
This work is included in François-Marc Gagnon’s online catalogue raisonné on the artist’s work at www.borduas.concordia.ca/en/about/index.php
Estimate: $30,000 - $40,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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