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Marc-Aurèle Fortin: The Experience of Colour

May 28 to September 11, 2011

Produced by the Musée National des Beaux-Arts du Québec


En français : Marc-Aurèle Fortin. L’expérience de la couleur.

Marc-Aurèle Fortin: The Experience of Colour, the first major museum exhibition devoted to the artist in more than 45 years, features a hundred or so paintings, prints, drawings and watercolours produced over four decades, between 1909 and 1949.

Fortin indelibly marked the Quebec imagination with the compositions of stately elms and colourful rural scenes for which he is best known. The exhibition presents views of Sainte-Rose, Île d’Orléans and the Charlevoix, Gaspé and Saguenay regions, depictions of the Quebec countryside of his day. It also includes a lesser-known but equally important aspect of his work: cityscapes. These urban views prove him a keen observer of the irreversible changes that modernity was bringing to Montreal in the 1920s and 30s.

The Exhibition
This exhibition is a tribute to the landscape artist Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888-1970), who painted for four decades in the rising tide of Quebec and Canadian modernity. The 107 works assembled here testify to his prolific output, from the early paintings done in Chicago, in 1909 and 1910, to the Gaspé and Saguenay region landscapes captured in the late 1940s, before health problems forced him to stop working. While remaining faithful to figurative art as a painter, watercolourist, printmaker and pastelist, he endlessly experimented with colour, the true focus of his inquiry.

In the 1920s and 30s, Fortin’s career took off with the success of his views of Montreal and its harbour and his depictions of large trees. These works earned him recognition in the art world, and this exhibition honours their outstanding quality. You will discover famous pieces and others less well known, all illustrating steps on a remarkable artistic journey marked by experimentation and freedom.

The City and the Harbour
Early in the last century, Marc-Aurèle Fortin witnessed the industrialization of the Hochelaga district and Montreal’s harbour, which was then the world’s largest grain port. The urban space was invading the countryside at the city’s doors, and the collision of nature and culture inspired him to paint stunning views. Keenly attentive to the profound changes taking place, he was particularly captivated by the construction of the Harbour Bridge, in the late 1920s, renamed Jacques Cartier Bridge in 1934. These themes were among the first to illustrate the artistic modernity of French Canada.

In his paintings and watercolours, Fortin boldly combined the purity of colour with the expressiveness of line drawing, which culminated in his etchings. He was inspired by jumbled buildings, railway tracks and power lines to produce a myriad of graphic motifs. No matter which technique he used, the artist kept the human presence to a minimum.

The Early Days
Recent research has shed light on Fortin’s early career, which had long been obscure. We now know that after briefly studying at the Art Institute of Chicago (1909-1910), the artist, then in his twenties, worked as a painter in Montreal. He exhibited in the prestigious annual shows of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts and the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).

His pictures were relatively small at the time, but they already showed good knowledge of painterly techniques and the new issues of painting. In Chicago, the young Fortin had celebrated the architecture of skyscrapers and the industrial landscape. The same themes also inspired him in Montreal, where he painted many views of the city and its harbour.

Expressive brushstrokes predominate in these works, which capture atmospheric effects at different times of the day, from dawn until moonrise. This preoccupation with the qualities of light became the subject of exquisite sketches in which Fortin began composing the large trees that brought him success in the 1920s.

A Colourist’s Experiments
Unlike the other arts, painting is defined by colour. Fortin saw his art as “silent poetry,” thus as part of the academic tradition, but, paradoxically, his determination to make bright colours sing made him one of the most progressive painters of his generation in the 1920s.

The works in this section illustrate the mastery of colour that he often wielded by juxtaposing complementary hues. The red accent of an old woman in a garden of greenery, for example, or the purplish shadows next to shades of orange confirm that, by the late 1910s, Fortin had a good grasp of colour theory, which is fundamental in the history of modern painting.

With the passing years and experiments, the artist increasingly defined his forms by applying pale colours on dark grounds. This is the case in Winter Scene in Canada, where the visible brownish undercoat outlines the motifs while the coloured surfaces take on a fanciful appearance, departing from pure figurative representation.

The Green Paradise
Since returning from Chicago, in 1910, Fortin had been driven by the ideal of an art that would transcribe the authenticity of his homeland, a “national art.” In Ontario, the same quest impelled the Group of Seven painters. Ultimately, it was in his native village of Sainte-Rose, north of Montreal, that the Quebec artist found the subjects that would enable him to achieve his goal. It is said that the large elms which bordered Principale Street were so lush that people walked beneath them without getting wet when it rained.

Fortin depicts these giant trees as symbols of an all-powerful nature and studs their foliage with Impressionist touches. By way of contrast, he represents the peacefulness of everyday life at the foot of the green masses, filling the limited space with brightly coloured Québécois houses, tiny strolling or working figures and, of course, the ever-present hay wagon. These verdant scenes often unfold under blue skies heavy with “fat white rolled clouds, after heat waves,” as the painter put it.

The Colours of the Land
“The atmosphere in Quebec is a sort of rather warm grey-purple,” said Fortin, who roamed the province for a dozen years, from 1936 to 1948. Fleeing Montreal’s heat in the summer, he set off on journeys that took him first to Quebec City, then along the Beaupré coast and to Île d’Orléans. Next he went to Baie-Saint-Paul and discovered the Charlevoix region, exploring the villages by bicycle with his material tucked under an arm. Between 1940 and 1945, the rambling artist headed east and discovered the Gaspé Peninsula. He later painted in the Saguenay region, with his friends René Richard, Maurice Le Bel and Albert Rousseau.

Fortin brought back numerous watercolours from all these travels and rendered them in oil in his studio during the winter months. In his large paintings, the bright colours explode against dark grounds of black, grey or brown. In 1948 he abandoned oil in favour of the more liquid casein, which dries with a matte finish. This technique transformed his vision of the landscape and gave it freer, more spontaneous expression.


Produced by the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, the bilingual exhibition Marc-Aurèle Fortin: The Experience of Colour is on display at the McMichael from May 28 to September 11, 2011. It is accompanied by a 300-page catalogue of more than 150 oils, watercolours, etchings, and pastels illustrating the milestones of Fortin’s remarkable journey of exploration and freedom, available in both English and French versions at the Gallery Shop.


Sainte-Famille, Île d’Orléans by Marc-Aurèle Fortin Marc-Aurèle Fortin (1888-1970)
Sainte-Famille, Île d’Orléans, 1941
Watercolour and charcoal on paper
56.7 x 77.7 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1942.17)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)

Laurentian Landscape Marc-Aurèle Fortin, (1888–1970)
Laurentian Landscape, 1919 (or earlier)
Oil on canvas
61 x 97.2 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1968.261)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)

Railway Tracks at Hochelaga
Marc-Aurèle Fortin
, (1888–1970)
Railway Tracks at Hochelaga, 1931 or 1932
Pastel on paper
447.2 x 60.9 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1977.390)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)

Passing Shower, Baie-Saint-Paul
Marc-Aurèle Fortin
, (1888–1970)
Passing Shower, Baie-Saint-Paul, 1936 or 1937
Oil on cardboard
98 x 120.6 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1960.955)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)

Marc-Aurèle Fortin
, (1888–1970)
Saint-Siméon, 1938
Watercolour and charcoal on paper
48.8 x 61 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1939.54)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)

The Elm at Pont-Viau
Marc-Aurèle Fortin
, (1888–1970)
The Elm at Pont-Viau, 1928 (or earlier)
Oil on canvas
137 x 166.4 cm
Coll. MNBAQ (1937.20)
© Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation / SODRAC (2011)


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