Coburn collection: Looking back on winters past

Painter’s work evokes feelings of yesteryear

LAWRENCE SABBATH, Special to The Gazette
The Gazette. Montreal
Sep 13, 1986. p. C5

Like many of his contemporaries, Canadian painter Frederick Simpson Coburn (1871-1960) listened to the beat of the drum inside him, so his oeuvre reflects little, if anything, of the art movements that revolutionized 20th-century and late 19th-century art.

Coburn, the subject of a retrospective at Galerie Walter Klinkhoff (1200 Sherbrooke St. W. through Sept. 20), was steeped in a centuries-old classical vein and despite contact with artists who forsook the well-trodden paths of traditionalism, Coburn did what he knew best.

And what he did best was in conveying something of the timelessness of winter scenes, especially lively landscapes with horses pulling heavy loads of logs, or trotting across crisp, white snow with carriages of people in tow, bundled against the brisk winds – cumulus clouds scuttling across sunny skies.

A representative selection of those works is on display at Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, drawn from 45 paintings, prints, studies, sketches and photographs from both private and corporate collections.

That empathetic feeling comes across in Penfolds Hill, Eastern Township and On the Melbourne Road, which Coburn painted as a 75th birthday present to himself. There are also some fine, floral still-lifes, such as Still Life With Roses (1916) which bears Coburn’s initials as well as that of his wife, Malvina, an artist in her own right.

Dutch Lullaby is typical Dutch genre in subject-matter and execution, with a mother bending solicitously over her baby in a crib. Coburn was much influenced by Dutch work and made no attempt to hide his admiration for a style whose popularity was worldwide. Still, Coburn’s work is far from being slavishly imitative. Portrait of Malvina, for example, may echo Thomas Gainsborough and Henry Raeburn, yet it reveals an admirable sense of modelling, a fluid handling of medium and a thorough understanding of portraiture.

Born in Townships

Coburn was born in Upper Melbourne in the Eastern Townships in 1871. Much of his early career was spent as an illustrator. He illustrated the books of Dr. William Henry Drummond and special classical editions for a U.S. publisher of Charles Dickens, Alfred Lord Tennyson, Edgar Allan Poe and others. Black-and-white versions of some of these scenes are featured in this exhibition.

Like many of his colleagues and other artists of the day, Coburn trained in Montreal and Paris, though he also studied in Holland, Berlin, London and New York. He was a friend of Maurice Cullen, Clarence Gagnon, Marc-Aurele de Foy Suzor-Cote, Edmond Dyonnet and William Bryner.

Coburn moved in many circles. Eric Klinkhoff recounted last week that Coburn knew Theo van Gogh, who liked his work and exchanged a painting by him for one by his brother Vincent. Coburn later sold it, according to Klinkhoff, in the ’50s.

Ever active at his craft, Coburn exhibited frequently here and abroad. Although he became depressed in later years because he felt the public should know him as more than a painter of winter scenes, Coburn persisted. At age 57 he was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy and a year later won the Art Association of Montreal’s well-known Jessie Dow prize, which was followed by other honors.

After the death of his Belgian wife in 1933, Coburn began a second career at age 62. Cullen is said to have introduced him to a model and dancer, Carlotta, and for the next 27 years that relationship occupied much of the artist’s life, until his death in Upper Melbourne in 1960.

He painted Carlotta nude, semiand fully-clothed in dance costume. Typical is the striking, full-length Bolero (1936), with its undertones of John Singer Sargent.

Coburn also photographed Carlotta countless times and many of the photos appeared on covers of dance magazines. The busy team opened a dance studio in Montreal.

Copyright © The Gazette, Montreal

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