LOT 104

1873 - 1932

On Mongoose Creek, Algoma
oil on board
signed and dated 1919 and on verso signed twice, titled, dated and inscribed "Mongoose Creek, Algoma" / "R.A. Laidlaw" / "not for sale" (crossed out) / "#1507" / "4" and variously
8 3/8 x 10 1/2 in, 21.3 x 26.7 cm

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

Sold for: $265,250

Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave

Collection of R.A. Laidlaw, Toronto
By descent to the present Private Collection, Ontario

Paul Duval, The Tangled Garden: The Art of J.E.H. MacDonald, 1978, pages 85 and 89

“What Thomson was to Algonquin country, MacDonald was to Algoma.”

—A.Y. Jackson, Canadian Forum, January 1933

These words were from A.Y. Jackson’s posthumous tribute to fellow Group of Seven member J.E.H. MacDonald. When one takes into account the breadth and intimacy of understanding that Jackson had of his friend’s work, this praise is acute and exceptional. He places the work MacDonald produced in the Algoma region of Ontario at the very epicentre of a style of painting that has been celebrated now for over 100 years, and he was not alone in this assessment. In his book The Tangled Garden on MacDonald’s art, Paul Duval wrote, “These little painted pieces of board or wood panel are among the most vivid portrayals of the Canadian earth,” adding that they “represent a perfect meeting between artist and theme.”

This on-site oil sketch was produced on the second of three journeys taken to Algoma by Group members, a foray that was the final of the two mythical “boxcar trips” via a retrofitted railcar, equipped with bunks, a sink and a stove. The artists made themselves at home on the trip, decorating the car’s interior with the Latin motto Ars longa, vita brevis (“Art is long, life is short”). From their boxcar base, the members of the Group ventured out on foot, and sometimes along the track by handcar, to find their preferred inspirations. Their sketch boxes were loaded with their paints and supports, which in MacDonald’s case was often bookbinding board from Brown Brothers in Toronto, usually prepared in advance by his son Thoreau with a coat of shellac. This would render the boards a sound surface to receive oil paint, while also imbuing them with a warm, earthy glow, as visible in the gaps between the artist’s applications.

MacDonald’s paint handling, at times described as elegant or musical, is fully deserving of those descriptors here. The sweeping gesture in the impasto evokes the rock forms and burbling creek in full, fresh daylight, and the notes of red in the trees beyond the creek bed provide a well-chosen note of contrast, completing the composition with a subtle visual complexity. In many ways, the intimate feel of this painting hearkens back to MacDonald’s exceptional Tangled Garden works of the years just prior, once notoriously derided, now profoundly beloved. Thoreau noted that his father thought painting in this way was “the finest pleasure in life,” and MacDonald’s capacity to capture the lyrical resonance of nature in secretive moments was one of his many astonishing abilities.

MacDonald was skilled not only in making art, but also in forming friendships and mentoring other artists. Earlier in the decade, while employed by the commercial art firm Grip Ltd. in Toronto, he encouraged the emerging artistic voices of his colleagues, including Arthur Lismer, Franklin Carmichael and Tom Thomson, urging them to explore painting in their spare time. If Thomson was the guiding light for the Group of Seven, MacDonald was its centre.

With regard to this painting’s provenance, it could hardly be more sterling: originally owned by R.A. Laidlaw, a pre-eminent collector in Canadian art history, whose name is spread liberally throughout the Tom Thomson catalogue raisonné and the McMichael Canadian Art Collection. Exhibiting amazing foresight, Laidlaw built an exceptional collection of contemporary Canadian art at a time when few saw its value, for the Canadian art market as a whole would take many more decades to find its footing. With many of the works he once owned now in prominent public collections, an example available at auction represents a notably rare opportunity for acquisition.

Estimate: $60,000 - $80,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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