If you have a chance to stop by the Vancouver Art Gallery before April 19, there’s a fantastic collection of paintings by Maurice Cullen and his fellow Canadian impressionists on the first floor. The exhibition is subdivided into three parts: Maurice Cullen and His Circle, Maurice Cullen: Intimist, and Exploring Light: Canadian Landscapes from the Permanent Collection.
Maurice Cullen was born in 1866 in St. John’s, Newfoundland, and grew up in Montreal. In 1889, he moved to Paris, France, where he studied painting with Jean-Léon Gérôme and Élie Delaunay. He was clearly influenced by the impressionist movement, then at its height, and learned the impressionist style and techniques.
Now, that might sound like a straight path to becoming a lesser painter making a living off derivative works. After all, you can’t beat Monet or Renoir at their own game. You’re not even likely to be able to add much to their work, unless you’re, say, a Cézanne. Your Monet imitations may still pay your bills, but, well, artistically it won’t get you that far.
Then, however, Cullen moved back to Canada. And, to an impressionist, Canadian landscapes were an uncharted territory waiting to be discovered.
It doesn’t get cold and wet in France like it does in Quebec. Nor do they have snow in France like they do in Canada, covering everything in sight as far as you can see, several feet deep. There’s the early November snow in Quebec: two feet on the ground already, even though the oaks and maple trees haven’t lost their foliage yet. The late December snow: red and purple on a mountainside, illuminated by the early afternoon sunset. The April snow: the more recent snowfall covering the old hardened snow, the blue and green ice floes coming down a river, and all the while the sun is up high and the signs of spring are everywhere.
The French impressionists explored light and nature like no one before them. Painting Canadian landscapes, majestic, austere and beautiful, takes it in a whole new direction. It’s nowhere as apparent as in the Intimist collection, a set of 12 absolutely gorgeous nature paintings by Cullen. St. Catherine Street in Montreal, on a rainy and gloomy November evening, long before it was the busy commercial street it is today. The Laurentians, several times: after an early snowfall, in the midst of harsh winter, in the April sun. A summer landscape, but you can tell that it’s a cool and guarded summer, nowhere close to, say, the Mediterranean heat of southern France.
It wasn’t exactly obvious, before Cullen and his circle of fellow impressionists, that one should even try to paint Canadian landscapes. The attitude of the day was summarized by a quote posted at the exhibition, along the lines of “it’s bad enough that we have to live here, there’s no need to have pictures in the living room to remind us of it”. (I’m quoting from memory.) Cullen, though, found both incredible beauty and an artistic challenge out there. He met the challenge and made his audiences admire the stark, cold, larger than life Canadian nature.