On Paper: Jewels from the McMichael Collection

By Stephen Dale on March 22, 2016


Emily Carr, A Calm Day at Albert Head (1935), oil on paper, 55.9 x 87.6 cm. Gift of Darwina Faessler Moore. McMichael Canadian Art Collection

When Sarah Stanners assumed her current role as chief curator at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection last spring, she made it a priority to explore the gallery’s hidden gems. One of her discoveries was “a treasure trove” of works on paper, stored in a special climate- and light-controlled vault. The find was especially fortuitous, given Stanners’ personal fondness for such works.

“A big work on canvas is the thing that gets the front page in the newspaper, if it sells well,” said Stanners in an interview with NGC Magazine. “But works on paper for me are a little more exciting. They allow for a sense of intimacy, and a sense of immediacy, that you wouldn’t otherwise find.”

Stanners and assistant curator Chris Finn have sought to capture those qualities in the exhibition On Paper, currently on view at the McMichael. Drawn from the institution’s permanent collection, the exhibition occupies two galleries.


Clarence Gagnon, The Betrothal (1928-33), gouache over colour monotype on paper, sheet: 24.1 x 26.5 cm; image: 21.5 x 22.6 cm. Gift of Colonel R.S. McLaughlin. McMichael Canadian Art Collection

The first gallery showcases the full series of illustrations by Clarence Gagnon for Louis Hémon’s seminal Québécois novel, Maria Chapdelaine. These works are described by Stanners as “the jewel in the crown of our works on paper. Every single one of them is an original illustration, so it’s really a remarkable thing to have.”

The second gallery features a wide range of works by some of Canada’s best-known artists, including the first David Milne painting acquired by the McMichael in 23 years: a watercolour named Morning Paper (1939). It also contains three contributions from Emily Carr: two oil-on-paper paintings, and an entire sketchbook from 1903, the pages of which can be explored online.

Stanners believes the exhibition reveals some under-recognized qualities of familiar Canadian artists. In the case of Group of Seven painter A.J. Casson, for example, “people typically see his oil panels,” she says. “But he’s really a master in watercolour, and that’s where I think his true talent shines through. Because many of these artists were commercial illustrators, their draftsmanship and their work with paper was masterful. So what we’re doing, I suppose, is bringing out the ‘unsung heroes.’”


A.J. Casson, Housetops in the Ward (1927), watercolour over red conté and graphite on paper, sheet: 40.5 x 17.3 cm; image: 37 x 42 cm. Repatriated from the United States by the McMichael Canadian Art Collection with the Assistance of a grant approved by the Minister of Canadian Heritage under the terms of the Cultural Property Export and Import Act

Meanwhile, Stanners points to a series of drawings by fellow Group of Seven artist Arthur Lismer — “a set of caricatures or loose sketches of his peers” — as an illustration of how working on paper allows an artist a sense of intimacy that would almost surely be lost with the painstaking preparation required for a studio portrait on canvas.

“We have a face for every member of the Group of Seven, and for Tom Thomson,” says Stanners. “These were his friends, and he was able to bring out their characters as he knew them. And given the scrap-like nature of the paper, it seems that Lismer wasn’t thinking that one day these would be in an exhibition. He was simply doing them for the love of drawing, and their intimacy comes from that.”

In Milne’s watercolours, Stanners notes: “He uses some brilliant wet-on-wet techniques, and that certainly delivers immediacy: when you wet your paper, then apply wet watercolour to it, there is the potential for chaos, and the creative idea has to be expressed at that very moment.”


David Milne, Morning Paper (1939), watercolour on paper 36.8 x 49.5 cm. Promised Gift of Katia and John Bianchini to the McMichael Canadian Art Collection

In On Paper, those Milne watercolours are showcased as the artist himself originally prescribed. In 1915, when he held a solo exhibition of his work in his apartment, Milne asked his family’s permission to paint the walls black. J. Arthur Clarke — an advertising artist and early Milne patron whose coloured-pencil drawings of Milne’s painting hut are also on view — had remarked, upon seeing the exhibition, how brilliantly the black walls brought Milne’s watercolours to life.  

Stanners took the same unconventional approach by having the walls painted black for the 2016 show. She is pleased with the result: “The black walls make the watercolours just pop, and allow the whiteness of the paper to shine through.”

According to Stanners, this exhibition is only the tip of the iceberg when it comes to the McMichael’s extraordinary collection of works on paper. Given Stanners’ own love of works on paper, and the outstanding range of works at her disposal, the possibility of more paper-centred exhibitions in future is strong. “This is our fiftieth anniversary year, and that gives us the opportunity to celebrate the gifts we’ve received,” she says. “I’m a big believer in finding the character of your collection and celebrating it.”  

On Paper is on view at the McMichael Canadian Art Collection in Kleinberg, Ontario, until May 1, 2016. The National Gallery of Canada is also showcasing one of the jewels in its own collection of works on paper in Picasso: Man and Beast. The Vollard Suite of Prints. The exhibition, opening on April 29, features the entire 100-print series for the first time since its acquisition in 1957.

By Stephen Dale| March 22, 2016
Categories:  Correspondents

About the Author

Stephen Dale

Stephen Dale

Ottawa writer Stephen Dale's latest book is Noble Illusions: Young Canada Goes to War (Fernwood Books, 2014).

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Copyright National Gallery of Canada 2016