Bringing the World of Impressionism to the Prairies

Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, The Hudson River (n.d.), oil on burlap, 50.6 x 40.9 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift from the Estate of Arnold O. Brigden, G-73-328

There are two ways in which Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald (1890–1956) is typically remembered: as the last artist to join the Group of Seven or, as Montreal art critic Robert Ayre described him, the “Painter of the Prairies.”

But the idea that FitzGerald didn’t mature until the 1930s, or that his isolation and focus on work in and around Winnipeg define him, really doesn’t capture what was happening between 1910 and 1920. According to Andrew Kear, Curator of Historical Art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, FitzGerald developed an interesting and unique approach to Impressionism — recording the sensory impact of light on canvas — during this first decade. And he was making an effort to create in a way that was relevant within an international context.

Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Portrait of the Artist’s Son, Edward FitzGerald (1918), oil on canvas, 16.4 x 22.5 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, G-64-26

“What got me interested about this period in FitzGerald’s career is not only that it’s overlooked, but that it really focuses on how the artist, early on, was looking outside of his own backyard,” said Kear in an interview with NGC Magazine about the new exhibition L.L. FitzGerald’s Impressionist Decade, 1910–1920. “He was still painting the Manitoba prairies, beaches, and forests. But stylistically, he was developing his art in a way that’s in dialogue with international modern art.”

Since he lived in Winnipeg, without the means to travel and study overseas, FitzGerald’s understanding of Impressionism was largely secondhand, with much of his information coming from Winnipeg colleagues who had contact with Impressionist work in Europe. FitzGerald was also a regular visitor at his local library, and encountered art informally by studying books and reading art magazines. This meant that he had to figure out an artistic movement and style —one that is emphatically about colour and light, largely from black-and-white images.

Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Assiniboine River (Sketch) [1921], oil on canvas, 24.7 x 29.9 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery; Gift of Mrs. P. Chester, G-56-23

However, he would also have encountered examples of Canadian Impressionism — works by M.-A. de Foy Suzor-Coté and Maurice Cullen, for example — brought to Winnipeg from the National Gallery of Canada. In 1910 and 1920, he also made two trips to Chicago, where European and American Impressionist paintings could be seen in both private collections and at the Art Institute of Chicago. Kear believes that, during the 1920 trip, FitzGerald would have seen a painting calledThe Northwest Wind (1914) by American Impressionist Charles Harold Davis. Kear believes that the painting’s vertically-oriented landscape, with a thin strip of land along the bottom, giving focus to a huge sky, made an impact on FitzGerald.

When FitzGerald returned to Winnipeg following his second trip to Chicago, he was painting in an unmistakably Impressionist mode, and produced one of his most important works: Summer Afternoon, The Prairie (1921). The top three-quarters of FitzGerald’s painting features the prairie sky with swirling clouds, while the bottom consists of a narrow slice of land. The image breaks up in high-keyed brushstrokes, with little attention to shadow. “It’s done in a very Divisionist, very Impressionist way,” says Kear. “Its resemblance to the orientation of Davis’ painting, and its subject matter, is uncanny and suggests that FitzGerald was thinking of the work he saw in Chicago.”

Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald, Summer Afternoon, The Prairie (1921), oil on canvas, 107.2 x 89.5 cm. Collection of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, L-90

In addition to iconic paintings such as Summer Afternoon, The Prairie, the exhibition includes lesser-known works. Drawn from the Winnipeg Art Gallery’s collection of over 1,000 objects by FitzGerald, this careful selection of oil paintings, monotypes, pastels, and small oil studies on canvas offers a fresh new look at an important Canadian Impressionist, at a key period in his artistic journey.

For more information on L.L. FitzGerald’s Impressionist Decade, 1910–1920, please visit theWinnipeg Art Gallery website. The exhibition is on view until June 7, 2015.

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