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oil on board
32.7 x 40.8 cm
British Columbia Archives, Presented in memory of Edward and Ellen Cridge, 1981
Street in Brittany, c.1911
watercolour on paper
26.2 x 36.5 cm
The McMichael Canadian Art Collection, Gift of Dr. and Mrs. Max Stern, Dominion Gallery, Montreal
French Girl and Siphons, 1911
watercolour and charcoal on wove paper
28.0 x 36.5 cm
National Gallery of Canada, Presented by the executors of Dr. Max Stern, 1988, in accordance with his wishes
Women of Brittany, 1911
watercolour and graphite on paper
44.5 x 54.6 cm
Collection of the Vancouver Art Gallery, Acquisition Fund
Even while living in Victorian British Columbia, Carr was aware that the potential of art was much greater than what she had witnessed in California and England. In an attempt to experience this "New Art," Carr left for France on July 10, 1910, clutching a letter of introduction to William Phelan "Harry" Gibb, a British expatriate living in Paris. She stopped in Calgary, Edmonton, Quebec and London, UK, along the way. Carr hoped to discover new ideas and techniques that would help her break with her conservative approach and bring more power to her renderings of First Nations communities.
I had brought with me a letter of introduction to a very modern artist named Harry Gibb... I stood by the side of Harry Gibb, staring in amazement at his walls. Some of his pictures rejoiced, some shocked me. There was rich, delicious juiciness in his colour, interplay between warm and cool tones. He intensified vividness by the use of complementary colour. His mouth had a crooked, tight-lipped twist. He was fighting bitterly for recognition of the "New Art"... Mr Gibb's landscapes and still life delighted me — brilliant, luscious, clean. Against the distortion of his nudes I felt revolt.
– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 430.
In Paris, Carr adopted a diluted form of Post-Impressionism that integrated aspects of Impressionism, Post-Impressionism and Fauvism, yet missed, or ignored, the radical techniques of artists such as Picasso, Braque and Matisse. Nonetheless, Carr's work was forever changed by her sojourn in France. In this period she succeeded in breaking with the British watercolour tradition and, more importantly, began to appreciate the expressive power of art. Now she understood the fundamental difference between visual reality and its transformation onto a flat canvas. Carr left France inspired by an expanded notion of the possibilities of art.1
On Gibb's recommendation, Carr had initially enrolled at the Académie Colarossi, but she was uncomfortable in the male-dominated atmosphere, and she struggled with the language. She was unable to understand the "crits" of her teachers, and though she arranged with an American student to trade clean paint rags for translation services, he was absent so frequently that she had to abandon the deal. Finding city life oppressive, Carr began to suffer from ailments similar to those that had plagued her in London. She was convinced that she must leave Paris, but after consulting with Gibb, she decided to study in the private studio of John Duncan Fergusson and later attended his classes at the Atelier Blanche. Fergusson was a Scottish-born expatriate known for his rhythmic figure studies and his use of a vivid palette.2 Under his direction, Carr studied figure drawing and still life, and learned new paint application techniques and the use of the Fauve palette in thick, pronounced brush strokes. For the first time she began to work exclusively in oils, eliminating detail, flattening forms and creating structure and depth out of short, colourful brushstrokes.
Carr took a brief interlude in Sweden to stave off another collapse, then followed Gibb to Crécy-en-Brie and St. Efflam to attend his landscape classes. Gibb's instruction and criticism were critical to Carr's artistic development. He helped her to separate the sky from the landscape through the movement of her brushstrokes alone. More importantly, Gibb taught her to introduce imaginative power into her art, to represent her own vision and interpretation of the scene. Carr began experimenting with perspective, scale and colour, rather than remaining faithful to literal representations of natural forms.
In the French countryside, Carr painted village scenes, farms, churches and interiors of cottages, paying particular attention to the lives of peasants. Her new Post-Impressionist technique was perfectly suited to capturing village life, and she created street views and landscapes with short, broken brushstrokes and vibrant colour, as visible in Canal in France (1911) and Autumn in France (1911).
I heard there was a fine water colourist (Australian) teaching at Concarneau, a place much frequented by artists. I went to Concarneau—studied under her. Change of medium, change of teacher, change of environment, refreshed me. I put in six weeks' good work under her.
Concarneau was a coast fishing town. I sketched the people, their houses, boats, wine shops, sail makers in their lofts. Then I went up to Paris, crossed the English Channel, and from Liverpool set sail for Canada.
– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 436.
Carr left Gibb when she felt she had learned all she could from him. She then joined Frances Hodgkins in Concarneau for a few weeks of study before returning to Canada. Hodgkins, a native of New Zealand, had made a name for herself as a watercolourist in a late Impressionist style and had the distinction of being the first female instructor at the Académie Colarossi. Under her direction, Carr returned to watercolour, but with her new knowledge and painterly technique. Hodgkins showed Carr how to let her washes run into each other and to use bold, broken outlines and minimal detail.3 Carr's figure studies, such as those seen in Women of Brittany (1911) and French Girl and Siphons (1911), reveal a significant improvement in her execution of the human form. In these paintings there is none of the rigidity and stiffness that characterized her earlier work.
In the watercolours that Carr produced under Hodgkins' guidance, concern for detail and documentation is gone, replaced with energy and movement. Some of these works are even more intense than her oils from the same period. In Street in Brittany (c.1911), for example, Carr uses a bold palette to create a charming village scene out of thick black outlines and minimal detail.
Before Carr left for Canada, two of her paintings, Le Collier and Le Paysage, hung in the juried exhibition at the Salon d'Automne. It is unclear whether she attended the Salon, but this was nonetheless a great triumph for Carr, who had never before exhibited in an important group show.
When Carr showed Gibb some of her early First Nations sketches, he encouraged her to continue pursuing the subject. He cited Picasso's interest in aboriginal African art as legitimizing Primitivism within the rubric of the Modern movement. With a new approach to painting and renewed confidence, Carr was eager to return home and apply the French style to her First Nations subject matter. She came back to Victoria feeling accomplished and worldly, and more prepared then ever to confront the complexities of the totemic carvings.
I came home from France stronger in body, in thinking, and in work than I had returned from England. My seeing had broadened. I was better equipped both for reaching and study because of my year and a half in France, but still mystified, baffled as to how to tackle our big West.
– "Growing Pains" in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 436.
1 Doris Shadbolt, The Art of Emily Carr (Vancouver: Douglas & McIntyre, 1979), p. 36.
2 Ian Thom, Emily Carr in France (Vancouver: Vancouver Art Gallery, 1991), p. 14.
3 Maria Tippett, Emily Carr: A Biography (Toronto: Stoddart, 1994), p. 95.