National Gallery showcases works by James Wilson Morrice, Canada's first great vagabond painter

James Wilson Morrice: The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nation When: Oct. 13, 2017 to March 18, 2018

Where: National Gallery of Canada

National Gallery director Marc Mayer and Morrice exhibition curator Katerina Atanassova discuss the exhibition When: Thursday, Oct. 12, 6 p.m. Where: National Gallery auditorium Admission: Free

Guided tour with exhibition curator Katerina Atanassova and Sandra Paikowsky When: Saturday, Oct. 14, 1 p.m. Admission: Free with gallery admission

In the late 1880s, if James Wilson Morrice’s father had had his way, the young Montrealer would have joined the family textile business or, after he was admitted to the Ontario Bar, become a lawyer.

However, Morrice’s passion for painting would not be denied. In the early 20th century and with his father’s reluctant assent, Morrice became Canada’s first visual artist of international standing, based for the most part in Paris, although his friend and fellow post-impressionist Henri Matisse would call him “always over hill and dale, a little like a migrating bird but without any very fixed landing place.”

Two years ago, 150 years after Morrice’s birth, a treasure trove of his works found its own landing place in Ottawa, when 49 Morrice paintings were donated to the National Gallery of Canada. The entirety of the donation — from collector and art dealer Ash Prakash — will be unveiled to the public Friday, when the exhibition James Wilson Morrice: The A.K. Prakash Collection in Trust to the Nationopens.

The exhibition will run until mid-March, and then in the vagabond style of its subject, it will travel. Next year, the Morrice paintings will head to the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, N.B., from April 12 to July 2, 2018, and then to the Art Gallery of Alberta in Edmonton, from July 20 to Oct. 7. The Musée d’art de Joliette will show off Morrice’s works from Feb. 2 to May 5, 2019.

Photos of Morrice show a short, dapper man with a bald head and trimmed beard — you could mistake him for the businessman that his stern Scottish father had wanted him to be. But the black-sheep son preferred a bohemian life abroad that combined painting, hobnobbing with intellectuals and abusing alcohol. Morrice’s travels took him across France, to Italy, where he favoured stays in Venice, to North Africa and the Caribbean. As a war artist during the First World War, he painted Canadian infantries in northern France.

By 1924, Morrice’s alcohol abuse caught up with him. Rather than seek treatment, he remained on the move and died alone in a Tunisian military hospital. He was buried in the local cemetery.

Prakash’s donation consists of 45 oil paintings and four watercolours by Morrice. Taken together in chronological order, and buttressed by photographs, archival materials such as vintage postcards, and historical exhibition catalogues and newspapers, the exhibition yields “a journey of discovery that will help enrich our understanding of Morrice and the pivotal role he played in the development of modern art in Canada,” says Katerina Atanassova, the gallery’s senior curator of Canadian art, who curated the exhibition. Morrice, she says, was engaged in a “restless search to transform painting from a vehicle of seeing to an aid in feeling,” and he deeply influenced a modernist approach to painting in 20th-century Canadian art even if he was based in Europe and only returned home for Christmas visits.

“If you look at the works from members of the Group of Seven, like Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, they constantly brought his name forward and said it was Morrice who inspired them,” Atanassova told the Citizen in 2015 when the gallery received the Morrice paintings. “Several generations of Canadian artists felt, and continue to feel, inspired by what he has contributed.” Atanassova will co-lead a guided tour of the exhibition on Saturday at 1 p.m.The exhibition also includes a video conversation between Atanassova and Prakash about what led him to start collecting Morrice’s paintings and why he collected them so single-mindedly over nearly 40 years.“My relationship with Morrice and his work is that of a lover and a beloved,” Prakash said in a release. “It has never been didactic, or scientific oranalytical. It has been a magnificent obsession that I have pursued with reckless abandon.”When Prakash, a Toronto-based art dealer and collector who was formerly a senior federal public servant in Ottawa and advisor to prime ministers Pierre Trudeau and Brian Mulroney, gave his Morrice collection to the gallery two years ago, its estimated value was $20 million. “The gallery is deeply grateful to Mr. Prakash for enabling us to provide our visitors with a greater understanding of this major artist’s significance,” says gallery director and CEO Marc Mayer. “The National Gallery of Canada is now the collection of record for Morrice thanks this outstanding gift.”In conjunction with the exhibition, the gallery is co-publishing a 240-page companion book, written by Atanassova and bolstered by essays. The $40 book also includes an interview with Prakash.