William Blair Bruce, The Smiths (1894), oil on canvas, 127.8 x 198.8 cm. NGC
Did he or didn’t he? When it comes to William Blair Bruce, it’s the question that everyone asks. A pioneer of Canadian art, Blair Bruce was one of Canada’s first Impressionist painters, and a founding member of the artist’s colony at Giverny: the French village made famous by its most renowned resident, Claude Monet.
So, did the Canadian artist ever meet Monet? “We know that he was welcome at the Monet household,” says the Art Gallery of Hamilton’s Senior Curator of Canadian Historical Art, Tobi Bruce (no relation to the artist). She’s referring to a card written by Monet’s second wife, Alice Hoschedé, inviting Blair Bruce to join a gathering of artists at their residence. However, Blair Bruce “never writes to his family or fiancé, saying, ‘I was in the company of Monet.’”
William Blair Bruce, La meule (1883), oil on canvas, 73.2 x 92.3 cm. Art Gallery of Hamilton; Bruce Memorial, 1914. 14.18
Whether the two artists crossed paths or not, Blair Bruce’s time in Giverny was still pivotal in his development as an artist — something that is explored in a major retrospective currently on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. Into the Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859–1906) is the largest survey of Blair Bruce’s work ever mounted, featuring more than 100 paintings from the collections of the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the National Gallery of Canada, the Brucebo Foundation, the Metropolitan Museum of Art, and the Nationalmuseum in Stockholm, among other institutions.
Born and raised in Hamilton, Blair Bruce left his hometown in 1881 for Paris, determined to make it as an artist. The exhibition follows his story and career from his early days in those two cities, to the French artists’ colonies of Barbizon, Giverny, and Grez-sur-Loing, and finally to Sweden where he and his wife, the Swedish artist Caroline Benedicks, settled in Gotland, an island in the middle of the Baltic Sea.
As Tobi Bruce explained during a conversation with NGC Magazine, Blair Bruce was a “very ambitious” and “peripatetic” artist who was trying to make a name for himself internationally: “The primary vehicle through which he needed to operate was the French Salon — that was the international marker of success.”
William Blair Bruce, The Phantom Hunter (1888), oil on canvas, 151.1 x 192.1 cm. Art Gallery of Hamilton; Bruce Memorial, 1914. 14.26
And Blair Bruce was successful. The exhibition includes several examples of his large-scale, narrative works that were painted for — and often favoured by — the Salon, including the 1884 painting Temps passé and 1888’s The Phantom Hunter, Blair Bruce’s best-known work.
But as impressive as these paintings are, Tobi Bruce suggests in the exhibition that Bruce was “at his very best when he was not preoccupied with the expectations of the French art world, but when he was in direct communion with Nature, painting in a field, forest, or by the seaside en plein air.”
William Blair Bruce, Forest Interior, Grez (1893), oil on canvas, 27.2 x 35.3 cm. Brucebo Foundation, Gotland
Blair Bruce worked in parallel on a body of plein-air paintings throughout his career, focused in particular on the capturing of light. Standout examples of these paintings include La meule [“The Haystack”] — an 1883 work painted by moonlight alone (and rejected by the Salon) — as well as 1893’s Forest Interior, Grez, an almost abstract screen of trees and filtered light.
The exhibition culminates with a selection of works that Blair Bruce painted during his time in Gotland where, as Tobi Bruce says, “it all came together for him.” Deeply inspired by the Baltic seascape, changing light, and atmospheric conditions, Blair Bruce created a body of work there that includes Setting Moon, Brucebo (c. 1900–1906). Paintings such as these seem to speak across time and space, resonating powerfully with today’s audience.
William Blair Bruce, Setting Moon, Brucebo (c. 1900–06), oil on canvas, 73.2 x 92.3 cm. NGC
Blair Bruce, unfortunately, died prematurely at the age of 47. However, his family donated a significant collection of his paintings to the City of Hamilton in 1914, giving rise to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, which this year marks its centennial.
“It would have been fascinating to know what direction his practice might have taken,” says Tobi Bruce. What we are left with, however, is a compelling life story and body of work that has been brought into the light.
Into The Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859–1906) is on view at the Art Gallery of Hamilton until October 5, 2014. In addition to Setting Moon, Brucebo, other works on loan from the collection of the National Gallery of Canada include The Smiths (1894) and Study for Summer Day (1889).
Robyn Jeffrey is a writer and editor based in Wakefield, Quebec.
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