Above: James Wilson Morrice, Canal in Venice, c. 1898–1900, oil on canvas. Gift of A.K. Prakash, J.W. Morrice Collection, 2015. National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa Photo © NGC
The National Gallery of Canada announced Tuesday that it had received 50 masterpieces by Canadian artist James Wilson Morrice, valued at more than $20 million, from an impressive personal collection.
The A.K. Prakash Foundation, founded by Toronto-based art historian and collector Ash K. Prakash, made the generous donation in honour of the post-impressionist artist’s 150th birthday.
The executive director of the foundation, Malcolm Burrows, called Prakash a “passionate lover” of Canadian art, and Morrice’s work in particular. It was a love affair that spanned four decades, but Prakash had always planned to give it away, said Burrows.
“This was something that was bigger than himself, and something that he wanted to ensure that all Canadians could appreciate,” said Burrows.
The donation consisted of the most significant private collection of Morrice’s works. It includes such masterpieces as The Pink House, Montreal and Le jardin du Luxembourg, Paris, both painted in the beginning of the 19th century.
The National Gallery won the right to display the collection after the foundation asked for proposals from it and two other major Canadian galleries on their vision for Canadian art at home and internationally.
Burrows said it was a “hands-down” victory for the gallery.
“We wanted to focus on the art, its role in speaking to other parts of the Canadian tradition,” said Burrows. “The National Gallery rose to the occasion in a way that was singular.”
The Morrice paintings will be part of a re-launch of the permanent collection in 2017, celebrating the 150th anniversary of the confederation of Canada. A major retrospective of Morrice’s work, drawing from other collections, will follow in 2019 along with an international tour.
One of the gallery’s Canadian exhibition rooms will be renamed the Ash K. Prakash Gallery for 25 years.
The gallery’s first acquisition of Morrice’s work was in 1909, said gallery director Marc Mayer at Tuesday’s press conference.
“The gift of 50 additional works strengthens our collection by filling in important gaps so that now we can represent the artist’s full chronology, tell the full story of this remarkable artist,” he said.
Senior curator of Canadian art, Katerina Atanassova, also emphasized the importance of the donation to the collection.
“The artist is so pivotal in the development of Canadian art. He is the very first Canadian artist recognized abroad as one of the earliest modernist painters,” she said.
Morrice was born in Montreal in 1865, but moved to Paris as a young man. He painted the vibrant cafés, streets, and parks of the city, as well as seascapes of Britanny and Normandy. Later in life he embraced more bold colours as he travelled to North Africa and the Caribbean, but he always kept the sensitivity of colour that was his trademark.
He was also one of the first Canadian artists to reach international stature, exhibiting at such establishments as the Musée du Luxembourg in Paris, the Musée des beaux-arts in Lyon, and the Tate Gallery in London.
Although he lived the rest of his life abroad, he would return to Quebec every year to paint and many of his Canadian works are winter scenes of Quebec City and its surroundings.
His other notable works came from his time spent behind the front lines during the First World War, which resulted in more somber images of soldiers marching in France.
Atanassova said she had been deeply affected by Morrice early in her career.
“He has a tremendous significance, not only in the development and the evolution of Canadian art, but in influencing generations of Canadian artists after him,” she said.
Of his art, she said, “It’s timeless, it’s a sense of reverie, a sense of never-changing eternal moments, frozen in time.”
Visitors can now view some pieces from the collection in the Ash. K. Prakash gallery in the Canadian art section of the gallery.