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Friday, November 3, 2017

William Brymner

In the Cellar Window, 1914, William Brymner
A person who can draw and paint is a rare individual--about one in a thousand, I would guess. A person who can draw and paint and also teach others to do so is rarer still. A person who can do all of this while earning the love and respect of all those with whom he or she comes into contact is one in a million. That would very well describe the Canadian artist, William Brymner. Unlike many, perhaps even most, of the Canadian artists whom Brymner influenced and taught, he was equally at home painting figures as he was grand Canadian landscapes. The quality and diversity of his art work, as well as his many contributions as an art teacher, earned Brymner a reputation as one of the major Canadian artists of his generation.

A man whom success followed in everything he did.
William Brymner was born in 1855. Though born in Greenock, Scotland, when he was but two years old, his family moved to Melbourne in Lower Canada (west of Maine, East of the St. Lawrence River). In 1864 his family relocated again to Montreal. There Brymner completed his studies at a private school. At the age of fifteen he was briefly apprenticed to a Montreal architect while also attended night classes at the National Institute of Fine Arts, Sciences, Arts Trades, and Industries. His father’s appointment in 1872 to the Federal Department of Agriculture as clerk in charge of archives took the family to Ottawa. William found work as a clerk in the same department. By 1874 he had moved on to become a draftsman in the Department of Public Works.

My Friend, Gaston,
William Brymner
With financial support from his father, Brymner sailed for Europe in 1878 to study architecture. He settled in Paris, where initially he worked as an exhibition designer for the Canadian commissioner to the universal exposition held there that year. The following summer he took drawing lessons with Charles-François Pinot before enrolling at the Académie Julian. There he studied under Jules-Joseph Lefebvre and Gustave Boulanger. After committing himself to painting, in 1879 Brymner began indepen-dent studies with Charles Durand, while sup-plementing this instruction with anatomy cour-ses at the École des Beaux-Arts. Brymner con-tinued at the Julian until 1880 under the guidance of Tony Robert-Fleury and Adolphe-William Bouguereau. He embraced French academic tenets of good draftsmanship, formal harmony, and technical excellence, but reac-ted against the artificiality of the studio-produced academic painting on grand themes. Early on he affiliated himself with a group of contemporary naturalist painters inspired by the Barbizon School, and led by Jean-François Millet. He adopted their practice of sketching in rural settings seeking picturesque subjects and natural effects. During the summer of 1879 he painted in the French and Belgian countryside.

A Wreath of Flowers, 1884, William Brymner
Brymner returned to Ottawa in 1880 to accept the position of headmaster at the new Ottawa Art School. Teaching helped fund a second trip to France in 1881, but rheumatic fever soon forced his return in to Ottawa, where he spent the winter recovering. The following year Brymner sent his first works to the annual exhibitions of the Art Association of Montreal (AAM) and the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA), held jointly that year in Montreal. In 1883 Brymner was made an associate of the RCA. That summer found him back in France, sketching at Pontaubert with British painter Frederick Brown. He also visited Yorkshire, England, where he returned the following May for another seven months. There he painted with British artist Frederick William Jackson and Canadian-born James Kerr Lawson. At Runswick Bay he painted his first major canvas, A Wreath of Flowers (above), which he sent to the RCA exhibition. Based on outdoor life studies, this painting typifies Brymner’s youthful style, showing his early narrative interests; demonstrating his mastery of the human figure and landscape, as well as his refined tonal naturalism.

The Weaver, 1885, William Brymner
Brymner spent the summer of 1885 in Canada, travelling in the Baie-Saint-Paul region of Quebec as he applied French painting methods to Canadian subjects. He produced some of his best work around this time, including Sad Memories and The Weaver (above), painted at Baie-Saint-Paul. Another work from this period, Crazy Patchwork, depicts his younger sister. He quickly built a reputation as one of the outstanding Canadian figure and landscape painters of his generation. In February 1886 he was elected a full member of the RCA. His diploma piece, A Wreath of Flowers, was one of four of his paintings featured in the Canadian section of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition held that summer in London, England.

Though his Canadian Rockies paintings were done in the summer, Brymner painted outside all year around.
Also in 1886 Brymner became a member of the Ontario Society of Artists. About the same time he took a trip by train through western Canada, during which he painted at the Blackfoot Indian Reserve in Gleichen, Alberta (southeast of Calgary), and in the Selkirk Mountains. He travelled to the Canadian Rockies again 1892 on a major commission for the Canadian Pacific Railway to produce scenic views for public display, some of which were exhibited at the World’s Columbian exposition in Chicago in 1893. He returned west the next year to work in Field and Glacier, B.C., and again in Gleichen.

The Picture Book, 1898, William Brymner
Bonsecours Church and Market,
1913, William Brymner
By the 1890s Brymner had developed a distinctly personal style. Landscape painting was his primary interest, but he also produced some notable genre and portrait paintings as exemplified by The Picture Book (above), from 1898. Brymner's interpretation of the Can-adian landscape grew more painterly and concerned with atmospheric effects as the decade progressed. A similar trend towards intimate, evocative portrayals occurs in his figure paintings, many executed in watercolor, his preferred medium in these years. Portrait of a Boy (below) from 1897, and The Picture Book, both watercolor on linen, bear com-parison with the tonal compositions of James McNeill Whistler. Trips to Venice in 1901 and 1902, where he painted with James Wilson Morrice and Maurice Galbraith Cullen, and to sunny Martigues, France, in 1908 further dir-ected Brymner towards a more impressionistic style.

Portrait of a Boy,
William Brymner
In 1907 Brymner was elected vice-president of the RCA and two years later became its president. In 1916 he had a solo exhibition at the Arts Club of Montreal. A year later, a stroke effectively ended his painting career, and forced his resignation as president of the RCA. In early 1921, after a second solo exhibition at the Arts Club, he retired from teaching to travel with his wife, mainly in France and Italy. He died that same year at the age of sixty-six while visiting her family in Wallasey, England.

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