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Thursday, January 5, 2017

Alfred Joseph Casson

Street in Glen Williams, 1938, A.J. Casson.
I'm not sure why, but when we think of landscape paintings our minds seem to automatically pull up woodland scenes, perhaps with a brook, lots of trees, and maybe a sunset. These are all stereotypes that, far from being invalid, are, unfortunately, quite apt. The term "vast majority" is very much overused today, but I think I can safely say that the vast majority landscapes painted "now and then" have one or more of those elements. Be that as it may, by far the worst landscape painting stereotype we conjure up is one of Realism (with a capital "R"). Again its a valid stereotype but one we should avoid in that it automatically eliminates from our consciousness many of the most important (not to mention, most beautiful) landscapes ever to flow from an artist's brush. With that in mind, take a look at the work of the Canadian landscape painter, Alfred Joseph Casson (above).
Casson was invited of Frank Carmichael to become a member
of the Group of Seven in 1926 after Frank Johnston left
the group some years earlier.
Street in Glen Williams (top) is a large oil on canvas by the Group of Seven's A.J. Casson. The painting was expected to do well at the 2010 spring auction of high-end Canadian art organized by Toronto's Joyner Waddington Auction House. And, thanks to spirited competition among three bidders, the Casson exceeded expectations, selling for a record $542,800, including buyer's premium. The Casson, a leafy, autumnal portrait of a small town near Toronto, carried a pre-sale estimate of $200,000-$250,000, the highest such valuation ever placed on a Casson painting. A.J. Casson joined the Group of Seven in 1926, as the youngest of the group, but highly esteemed, even at the age of twenty-eight, for his paintings of small towns in every season. Canadian art critic and historian, Paul Duval, referred to Street in Glen Williams as unquestionably his key autumn portrayal. At the time of Casson's death, in 1992, he was the last surviving member of the group, originally founded in 1920.

Farmhouse Winter, A. J. Casson
A. J. Casson was born in Toronto, Ontario, in 1898. HIs parents were Quakers, his father, English, his mother Canadian. At the age of nine the family moved to Guelph and later to Hamilton. The first exposure Casson had to art was at Hamilton Technical School, where he was asked by his teacher to demonstrate for the class. When the boy turned fifteen, his father sent him to work as an apprentice at a Hamilton lithography company. In 1915 the family moved back to Toronto where the aspiring young artist worked during the day while attended evening classes at Central Technical School.

Winter On The Don, 1926, A.J. Casson
The first public exhibition of Casson's work was at the Canadian National Exhibition, in 1917. His impressive showing there caused him to be hired by the commercial art/ engravers firm owned by the brothers George and Fredrick Brigden. In 1919 Casson moved to Rous and Mann where he was influenced by Group of Seven member Franklin Carmichael to sketch and paint on his own. Carmichael and Casson then moved on to the first Canadian silkscreen printing firm, Sampson, Matthews Ltd. There Carmichael introduced Casson to many well-known artists, including other Group of Seven members.

Winter in the Village, 1938, A.J. Casson
After the disbanding of the Group of Seven in 1932, the following year Casson co-founded the Canadian Group of Painters. Several members of the Group of Seven later became members including Lawren Harris, Arthur Lismer, A. Y. Jackson, and Franklin Carmichael. Casson developed a painting style with clear colors and background designs. When Casson turned sixty in 1957, he "retired" from teaching and his position as art director at Sampson, Matthews Ltd. to paint full-time. It's not hard to see in the later works by Casson his drifting away from Realism, as seen in his 1938 Winter in the Village (above) toward a more abstract form of landscape art such as his Below Ragged Falls (below). The composition, style, and content bear only a very modest affinity for the Realism of his earlier work, but instead rely quite heavily on design and color for their visual impact.

Below Ragged Falls, A.J. Casson
Untitled, 1966-68, A.J. Casson
This gradual movement away from Realism toward a more abstract, even Cubist, approach to landscape painting may well have been more of an unconscious evolution rather than a conscious rejection of his earlier style. Most of Casson's paintings (alas) are not dated so it is difficult to trace a direct line of progression. However, we do see a tendency to mass color at the expense of texture in some of the artist's work from the 1930s then later a reliance on mirror-image shoreline reflections for some of his works dating from the 1960s such as Rain, Mist and Sun (below) and pictured below that, Village at Sundown, from 1960. The untitled hillside village (left) dating from 1966-68 shows a further departure from Realism (or naturalism if you prefer) toward a distinctive embrace of flat design bordering closely on Cubism. A. J. Casson died in 1992, just three months short of his 94 birthday,

Rain, Mist and Sun, A.J. Casson
Village at Sundown, 1960, A.J. Casson.
Squint your eyes slightly and the painting content
completely disintegrates.

Nature Morte, 1937, A.J. Casson. The artist
also painted a few watercolor still-lifes.


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