Personal Touch at the Ottawa Art Gallery

By Ariana Armstrong on July 30, 2014


James Wilson Morrice, Dinard, towards Saint-Malo (c. 1905), oil on panel, 12.1 x 15.2 cm. Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery, Miriam and Hudson Sargeant Art Collection; gift of Miriam Sargeant, 2013

When the Ottawa Art Gallery’s senior curator, Catherine Sinclair, received a call from an unfamiliar family in 2013, she wasn’t sure what to expect. “It was a cold call,” Sinclair recalls.

The niece and nephew of Miriam and Hudson Sargeant, Ottawa-based art collectors, had invited her to view — and freely select works from — the Sargeants’ private art collection. Curious, she went.

Sinclair was amazed by what she found. The collection contained approximately 60 works of art, many by well-known Canadian artists: A.Y. Jackson, John Hammond, Henri Masson, and Kittie Bruneau, to name a few. Sinclair carefully selected 23 works, each one a Canadian art historical gem.

These works now form an independent exhibition at the Ottawa Art Gallery (OAG): The Miriam and Hudson Sargeant Art Collection. Spanning the twentieth century, the exhibition combines prints, paintings, mixed media, and sculpture. The show displays an impressive variety of Impressionist and Post-Impressionist paintings, including a somewhat mysterious piece by internationally-renowned Canadian painter James Wilson Morrice (1865–1924).

Morrice’s painting, which depicts a port and several boats, was not dated when the OAG received it from the Sargeant family. An old dealer sticker on the back of the painting read “Fishing Boats, Concarneau.” With no evidence to the contrary, Sinclair assumed the label was accurate and titled the painting accordingly.

Morrice’s biographer, Lucie Dorais, contacted the OAG when she heard the gallery had acquired the painting. Referencing the label on the back, Dorais explained that dealers had inaccurately and generically labelled some of Morrice’s paintings Concarneau in reference to the French port where Morrice was known to have travelled. Dorais showed Sinclair a picture of the painting’s exact scene in Dinard, France, rather than Concarneau, and dated the painting to 1905. Mystery solved, Sinclair is now in the process of changing the painting’s title from Fishing Boats, Concarneau to Dinard, Towards Saint-Malo.   

Dinard, Towards Saint-Malo (c. 1905) is typical of Fauvism, a style characterized by bold colours and strong composition. This is the OAG’s first painting by Morrice, whose work appears in the National Gallery of Canada’s permanent collection. “His works are fairly rare; you don’t come across them very often,” Sinclair says. “They’re very highly valued on the art market.” 

The Sargeant exhibition is not the first OAG show based on a donated private collection. The Gallery is also home to the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art, which consists of 1,600 works amassed by Ottawa-based collectors O.J. and Isobel Firestone.

There’s something inspiring about that kind of generosity. “It’s an encouragement to young collectors that this is what you can do. You can build a collection that’s worth something to the public,” Sinclair says. “You’re contributing back to the community by offering them these amazing, beautiful works of art that can be shown when they’re put into museum care.”


Molly Lamb Bobak, November 11 (1971), oil on board, 122 x 102 cm. Collection of the Ottawa Art Gallery, Firestone Collection of Canadian Art; donated to the City of Ottawa by the Ontario Heritage Foundation, 1992

After years of rotating exhibitions, a selection from the Firestone Collection became a permanent exhibition at the OAG in 2011, with the title, In Focus: A Collector’s History; Selections from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art. Some of the well-known artists featured in the Firestone exhibition also appear in the Sargeant exhibition — A.Y. Jackson being just one example. “A lot of the works in the Firestone collection are complementary to what’s in the Sargeant collection,” Sinclair says.

Arranged chronologically, the Firestone exhibition takes viewers on a journey through Canadian art history. Moving clockwise, audiences are introduced to paintings inspired by European art trends before moving on to works by the Group of Seven and artists complementary to the Group’s style, including Emily Carr. The next section focuses on figurative painting, and the last displays a variety of modern abstract pieces.

Molly Lamb Bobak is one of several big names featured in the Firestone exhibition. Bobak (1920–2014), whose works are also in the NGC’s permanent collection, was the first Canadian woman sent overseas as an official war artist. Bobak’s November 11 (1971) is an audience favourite. The large figurative painting depicts a Remembrance Day parade. Its bright colours are expressive and eye catching. Objects and people within the scene are angled in a way that gives viewers a sense of being part of the festivities. When asked why so many people like the painting, Sinclair’s answer is simple: “I think people like to see people.”

Wide-reaching and distinctly Canadian, the Sargeant and Firestone exhibitions offer audiences an overview of 20th century Canadian art history. The exhibitions are a testament to the value of private collections, which bring with them a personal touch.

“They had their own ideas about what to collect and who to collect,” Sinclair says. “Suddenly it’s in the public domain, it’s being researched, it’s being conserved. It shows how far such an investment can go.”

The Miriam and Hudson Sargeant Art Collection is on display at the OAG until August 17, 2014. In Focus: A Collector’s History; Selections from the Firestone Collection of Canadian Art is on permanent display with periodic rotations. Bilingual publications are available for both collections. For more information, please click here.

By Ariana Armstrong| July 30, 2014
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Ariana Armstrong

Ariana Armstrong

Ariana Armstrong has a Bachelor's Degree in Public Affairs and Policy Management, with honours, and is currently in her second year of the Master's program in Journalism at Carleton University. She interned at Muse Magazine and Global National before joining NGC Magazine.

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