Imperial Oil makes major donation of Canadian art to National Gallery

Billboard (Jazz) by Lawren Harris, 1921. Oil on canvas. Copyright: Family of Lawren S. Harris Photo: NGC

I suppose I should start with Lawren Harris, who could be the most recognizable name in Canadian art and certainly is the blockbuster among paintings newly donated to the National Gallery of Canada, but can we first talk about Prudence Heward?

Heward lacks the broad recognition among art-goggling punters that sets gallery gift-shop cash registers a’chinging, and she may not be championed by A-list American celebrities (á la Steve Martin and Harris), but the portrait by Heward now new to the National Gallery is a sterling example of why her art was, and remains, important.

Miss Anne Grafftey by Prudence Heward, 1944. Oil on Canvas. Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

The 1944 portrait of Heward’s niece, Miss Anne Grafftey (still living, by the way), is one of five paintings donated by Imperial Oil Ltd., and it is — oh, how shall I put it adequately? It is of such exquisite beauty that one could be forgiven for not recognizing the forcefulness of its intent and execution.

Heward, like her great contemporary the Polish-born artist Tamara de Lempicka, was “really breaking the traditions” of portraiture of the time, says Katerina Atanassova, the gallery’s senior curator of Canadian art. Specifically, Heward was “capturing the essence and presence of the modern woman” in ways that challenged how society saw women. This Miss Anne Grafftey is no voiceless appendage to a man. There is a palpable resolve in that firm, young jaw, and great depth in those large eyes, a visage cast by Heward with a touch that seems softly cubist and redolent of art deco, with a vibrant background of satiny green that again calls out to de Lempicka’s palette and style.

Any man who stood before this painting in 1944 and failed to sense how the world was changing, how women were forcing change, was a dimwitted fellow indeed.

Rich Kruger was captivated with the portrait four years ago when he moved to Calgary from his native United States to take over as CEO of Imperial.

“When I first walked in the office on the first day, that’s one of the first ones I remember seeing. It was displayed right outside our corporate  boardroom . . . I would always walk out that boardroom door and I always found that very calming. I’m drawn to that one,” Kruger said, after the company’s gift was unveiled at the gallery on Thursday morning.

Idle Dreams by Paul Peel, 1887. Oil on Canvas. Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

Imperial, which built a modern new headquarters that has much less wall space for art, is donating 38 artworks to 14 galleries across the country, and in addition to the Heward the National Gallery gets important paintings by: Paul Peel (Idle Dreams, 1887, a delicately light portrait of a young girl); by A. J. Casson (Twilight near Britt, 1960, a quintessential example of the Group of Seven style recognized by so many Canadians, and increasingly elsewhere); and by Kathleen Moir Morris (Birds Feeding, 1945, a streetscape of Montreal by the Beaver Hall Group member, and painter of scenes of Ottawa’s ByWard Market in the 1920s).

Twilight near Britt, A.J. Casson, 1960. Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

Then there’s the Lawren Harris, which will unite all Canadians in wishing their parents/grandparents had been more aesthetically astute in 1921, when it went unsold at a price of $700. Today, the bids for Harris paintings can include seven zeroes.

Billboard (Jazz) is a Toronto streetscape, and is not of the style that is synonymous with Harris’s name — there are none of those animated, monolithic, snow-capped mountains. Before his landscapes practically adjusted our national psyche, before he marched so confidently into abstraction, Harris “routinely painted urban scenes,” says a gallery release.

Yet even then he was shocking the sensibilities of the Canadian establishment. Harris had been hanging out with European artists and absorbing their modern tendencies. Billboard (Jazz) is a street scene of two labourers erecting a billboard, and the painting, like the billboard, explodes with bright colours and bold brushstrokes, with great swaths of paint to build texture.  It’s a “masterpiece,” says Atanassova.

Birds Feeding, Kathleen Moir Morris, 1945. Oil on canvas. Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

“Any work of art that causes this kind of a disruption of  the formal, established conversation of art constitutes something exceptional,” the curator says, and adds, “I think in that way Prudence Heward would also be the same.”

Indeed, after Harris first saw the work of a young Heward, he was so awed that he had to turn around and go back and see it again. It was, he is said to have said, “swell.”

Billboard (Jazz) by Lawren Harris, 1921. Oil on canvas. Copyright: Family of Lawren S. Harris Photo: National Gallery of Canada.

The Imperial paintings are on view together only to Sunday, March 26, and then they’ll go into the rotation of the permanent Canadian collection.


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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.