Klinkhoff Gallery takes a fresh look at Maurice Cullen
By Bernard Mendelman
When a major touring retrospective for Maurice Cullen was not shown in Montreal because the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts was closed for renovation, the late Walter Klinkhoff in September 1974 undertook the task of presenting his own show of Cullen’s art. His son Eric said, “My father did this because this was the city in which Cullen made his home and which ultimately supported him and made him famous.” As a success of that exhibition, each year shortly after Labour Day, the Klinkhoff Gallery has continued a tradition of holding a retrospective for a major Quebec artist. Hundreds of hours goes into the preparation and all the works of which none are for sale are borrowed at their own expense. “It’s a role we have chosen,” said Eric, “To educate students and give back something to the art community.”
After 26 years the gallery is taking a fresh look at Cullen. The artist was born in St. John’s, Nfld. in 1866. The family moved to Montreal when he was four. Cullen’s mother died in 1887 leaving him a small inheritance of $2,000 which he used to study art in Paris and meet with the city’s leading Impressionist artists. He returned to Montreal in 1895 where he opened a studio. On a visit to Ste. Anne de Beaupré he made the acquaintance of James Wilson Morrice, one of the 20th century’s most talented painters. Morrice enjoyed Cullen’s company on what turned out to be an extensive sketching trip along the St. Lawrence North Shore. There they painted Quebec snowscapes, introducing brightness and richer colour into Canadian art. A few months later, they again painted together on a sojourn to France and Venice.
Cullen excelled at Montreal streetscenes at dusk where he captured the reflections of deep snow. Cabstand at Dominion Square, 1911, borrowed from the McCord Museum, with its horses and sleighs is the exhibition’s highlight. The Klinkhoffs also managed to come up with a pastel that is related to that oil. In addition, there is a magnificent large oil of Ste. Catherine St. done in 1899, plus a remarkable work, Montreal Harbour from St. Helen’s Island, 1915, with its moody grey background. Ice Cutting at Sillery, 1915, is another outstanding canvas.
Cullen, unlike Morrice was dependent upon his sale of paintings for a livelihood. The pictures he brought back from Europe were not easy to sell. An auction of 100 lots in 1900 brought only $800. In contrast last May at Joyner’s, a Cullen fetched $156,000!
Cullen struggled to earn a living in Canada, where wealthy merchants were interested primarily in the Dutch 19th Century School and unsympathetic to new ways of painting. In 1907 when he was elected a member of the Royal Canadian Academy, he finally achieved some financial success. Working year after year in the Quebec countryside during all seasons, notably at Beaupré and Les Eboulements, he created a number of masterpieces. Spring Thaw in the Laurentians, 1921, and La rivière du Nord, près de Ste. Marguerite, 1925, with glistening snow in the sunlight, intense blue in the shadows, and shimmering greens on the melting days of spring, confirm the greatness of Cullen.
In 1907 for the first time since he left in 1870, Cullen returned to Newfoundland where his father was still living. Here Cullen met Barbara Pilot, a widow with five children whom he married and brought the family back to Montreal. The youngest stepson, Robert was greatly influenced by him and went on to become an important Canadian artist. While in Newfoundland, Cullen produced a series depicting the colourful island landscape. The gallery was able to find one of these canvases for the show.
Morrice said of Cullen, “He is the one man in Canada that gets at the guts of things.” A.Y. Jackson, speaking for the Group of Seven wrote, “Cullen was a hero to us all.” Robert Pilot believed, “He brought to Canadian landscape a completely new vision in a manner both personal and appropriate to the country.”
Exhibition opens Saturday and is on until Sept. 30 at 1200 Sherbrooke St. W. For hours 288-7306.
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