James Wilson Morrice
1865 - 1924
Figure and Landscape, Capri
oil on canvas on board, circa 1894
on verso titled as Figure and Landscape, France on a label, inscribed "4146" and "#B105" and stamped with the F.R. Heaton estate stamp
11 1/2 x 7 in 29.2 x 17.8 cm
Estimate: $12,000 - $16,000
Preview at: Heffel Vancouver
F.R. Heaton Estate, Montreal
Galerie Walter Klinkhoff Inc., Montreal
By descent to a Private Collection, Montreal
Private Collection, Vancouver
In this figure study – a rare subject for James Wilson Morrice, who preferred to express himself through atmospheric landscapes – a clothed figure is sitting in a relaxed position, the head looking away from us, with the background almost abstract. A simple image it would seem, but not so easy to decipher. What is she looking at? And what about the grey form behind the figure – is it a small building, or perhaps a painting on an easel?
The related drawing, which is in The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Sketchbook #12, Dr. 1973.35, on page 24, is almost as challenging to interpret; if the figure is the same, the background is slightly different, and no easier to understand. It is only by perusing the sketchbook that we realize we are, surprisingly, on the sunny island of Capri in the Bay of Naples. The figure is probably a hatless woman sitting on a low stone wall, and we can now read the grey block behind her as a small building, for storage usage rather than a dwelling. A few leaves at the right border belong to one of the many small trees that border the trails of Capri.
Morrice had brought two sketchbooks on this Italian trip: Sketchbook #12 deals mostly with Capri, with a few Venice subjects near the end, while another sketchbook - now dispersed and impossible to put back in order – appears to deal mostly with Venice, with some Capri sheets; the concordance of subjects in both sketchbooks prove that they were used together. We do not know when Morrice visited the extremely popular tourist spot, but the style of his Capri drawings is very similar to that of some sketchbooks used around 1894.
Using the sketchbooks and a few paintings as a travelogue, we learn that the artist stayed in the town of Anacapri, high above the sea; we can follow him in the streets of the village, down to the harbour and along some of the picturesque trails radiating from the town center. Everything, it seems, catches his interest: the white buildings with pergolas, the small boats and the fishermen, the little girls solemnly posing and the lovely myrtle trees bordering the trails. One particular building, a crenelated tower (medieval Torre Materita?) held a special attraction for him, appearing in no less than four drawings and one small painting, The Black Goat (Capri), in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, gift of G. Blair Laing.
Our figure study seems to have been painted closer to Anacapri, on the road that overlooks the northern plunging slope before leading down to the village of Capri and its landing port, Marina Grande; the curve of the shore is very similar, especially when it is partly obscured by the morning mist, which would also veil the whitewashed houses down below. The woman’s clothing, a brown blouse and a blue skirt, coupled with the absence of a hat, could identify her as a local woman, were it not for the presence, in at least five pages from the two Capri–Venice sketchbooks, of a mysterious woman. She is always shown, as here, with her face turned away, and in other works, wearing a cape and a flowered hat, whether she visits Venice or sits overlooking the harbour in Capri; a tourist, not a local woman. Only once do we see her full profile, but alas, only in silhouette. However, when she takes her hat off on a boat in Venice (from a loose sheet, in a private collection), we can see some resemblance in both hairdo and the shape of the face with our painting’s model. If she is indeed the same woman, she was probably Morrice’s companion on his Italian trip; his insistence in hiding her face could suggest a close relationship, which would make this painting a rare window into the artist’s private life. Its early date, however, means that she is not his longtime companion Léa Cadoret.
Whatever memories this trip held for Morrice, he never returned to Capri, while his long-lasting love for Venice was kindled during the same voyage. Perhaps the nostalgic northern city was more in tune with his Anglo-Saxon moods than the quasi-oriental, whitewashed southern paradise of Capri.
We thank Lucie Dorais for her assistance in researching this lot and for contributing the above essay. Dorais is currently compiling a catalogue raisonné on the artist’s work.
Estimate: $12,000 - $16,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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