At the Mermaid Inn

The Globe, Toronto: April 16, 1892


Sir Roger—What have we here?
Giles—There is everything under the sun set down with some show of reason; they run atilt at the world, and treat men and manners as familiar as an old hat.
Sir Roger—Think you they protest too much? I like a matter disposed bravely, but—
Giles—Methinks they have a genial tongue. Will you hear them?
Sir Roger—Well, an’ it be not too long I’ll have some sack, and you read on.

— Old Play.

        At the first flush it might seem necessary to apologise for what may be considered an act of temerity in venturing to write a notice of the Academy exhibition just closed. If there is any department of criticism that needs special knowledge it is that of the plastic arts, and if our idea in the following sketch had been to point out what was excellent in technique it would have been necessary to accompany our words with a protest. But such was not the idea. It seemed that no task would be more congenial than to set down the impressions which some of the pictures had left upon the minds of two persons whose art is different but whose surroundings and mode of life are the same. And this is what we have tried to do. The position of the painter in a country like our own is one of peculiar difficulty. His art depends more than any other on the culture, the experience of the past, and, in a land like Canada, where we have practically no great pictures available and no eminent resident artist, the young painter finds himself without the means of overcoming the technical difficulties of his profession. To do so he must go abroad; he must seek in the ateliers and in the galleries of Europe for the practical insight which he could never obtain at home. That our exhibitions from year to year show a marked advance in technical skill is due in the main to the fact that our artists often by their own energy and self-denial have sought for knowledge at the source. This has raised the general excellence of the work, and has also had an effect for good upon those native geniuses whose art has often developed an astonishing vigor and individuality under unfavorable conditions. With this last idea in mind one naturally thinks of the pictures of Mr. Homer Watson. Here is an artist who owes less perhaps to influences from without than any of his fellow-workmen. But how fine his native manner is, how instinct with energy! He has so thoroughly mastered a certain kind of landscape under definite conditions of atmosphere that he reproduces it without a trace of uncertainty. He speaks from his canvas with something of that authority which is the unfailing indication of genius. In two of the pictures in the present exhibition, which are very characteristic, he reproduces the landscape under the presence of those cool, half stormy days when the fields are darkened by great shadows and swept by splendid gleams, and he conveys a delightful impression of the reality. How different is the work of Mr. Brownell, whose pictures are characterised by an exquisite skill governing a pure, natural taste. His “Low Tide, N.E.” is perhaps the most satisfactory bit of work in the collection. The delicate clods part fleecily below the blue, the sandy shore runs into lines of quiet grey, the rocks are yellowish brown and the sea creeps in with fragile foam from a palish-green distance. The impression is exquisite. His technical perfection is again convincing in “The Step Child,” where the figure has tone pensiveness and the surroundings absolute verisimilitude. Mr. Brymner, another painter who had the advantage of the schools, produces work in which there is always charm as well as careful sincerity and truth of observation. His “Wreath of Flowers” in the “National Gallery” is one of the pleasantest pictures which our art has produced, and if none of Mr. Brymner’s work in the present collection equals this there are nevertheless three of his contributions which are of very high merit. Conspicuous among them is “In the County of Cork, Ireland,” a painting to which the observer will return again and again with increasing pleasure. Mr. Brymner has treated us to one of the few local and specially national scenes in the gallery, that of “Champ de Mars, Montreal, winter’; and his smaller canvas, “Near Killarney, Ireland,” contains a felicitous impression of a cloudy sky and crowded clumps of low trees and bushes. It may be remarked here that Mr. Brymner and Mr. Watson, our two most characteristic landscapists in oils, each possess excellences which, if the power presiding over genius would let them exchange at least in part, would render their work in a still higher degree satisfactory. It would appear that Mr. Watson might spare some of his vigor and wealth of movement to Mr. Brymner, and that Mr. Brymner might transfer to Mr. Watson some of his care and prudence. Unfortunately such loans are impossible or else we would have two perfect painters.
       It has seemed to us that, in this exhibition at least, our landscape artists have been most successful, and this statement leads naturally to the mention of Mr. Reid’s large canvas, “The Foreclosure of the Mortgage.” The picture, with all its points of excellence and notwithstanding the interest which naturally accompanies a serious and important attempt, hardly succeeds in realising the painter’s motive. The figures in the left foreground—the woman bowed and prostrated by grief and the child at her side looking on with wandering eyes—are done with truth and pathos, and if the painter had exhibited in his completed picture an equal vigor of expression and attitude the result would have been decidedly more impressive. As it is the rest of the figures are detached and fail to produce a satisfactory unity of effect. In bringing into his picture the weakness and misery of the sick room, the artist has, we think, signally missed the opportunity offered him to represent simply and typically one of the commonest and most significant tragedies of our everyday life. If he had placed before us the figure of a strong man in the full possession of health and strength, beaten down at last in the long struggle with financial difficulties, he would have realised a situation, less painfully pathetic, perhaps, but infinitely more tragic and more imposing.
       Mr. Harris’ medium-sized canvas in a somewhat similar vein, which he calls “Going Wrong,” is perhaps more successful, although it will not strongly impress those who are familiar with Mr. Harris’ finest work. With “Cradled in the Net” Mr. Carl Abrens makes his first appearance in the Academy. He is to be welcomed and congratulated at the same time. The quiet dreaminess of that sun-flooded corner of the room, where the little child lies in the hammock so sound asleep, leaves us with a perfect sensation of repose and contentment. Miss Bell’s “Twilight Reverie” aims at a remarkable effect, and, although not particularly attractive, may be considered one of the most prominent pictures in the gallery. To return to the landscapes again, Mr. Woodcock’s “Cabbage Garden” strikes one immediately by its subtle scheme of color and by its craftsmanship, and, although somewhat affected, it shines by comparison with his other pieces, which appear mannered and conventional. Mr. Raphael, too, has several landscapes which are interesting but unmarked by any individual qualities. Of the portraits, Mr. E. Wyly Grier’s “Portrait of a Physician” appears to be the best, although it would have been greatly improved by a warmer background; the present black wall looks like poverty of invention and leaves the figure unprotected. Mr. Forster’s “Portrait of My Mother” are good pieces of work. The latter we would rank next to Mr. Grier’s, if not with it. Miss Tully’s portrait of Mr. Kivas Tully is also noticeable. It fell to the lot of Mary Hester Reid to make a complete success with her “Roses and Still Life,” which is quite indescribably delightful. Here and there about the walls were groups of flowers excellently painted, but this picture was the richest and most natural of them all. The small canvas of Mr. A. Watson, “A Kitchen Corner in a Humble House,” if faulty from the painter’s point of view, nevertheless deserves special mention for a certain pleasant touch of nature which we find to be rare.
       Turning to the water colors, the conspicuous figure is once more Mr. L.R. O’Brien—conspicuous more by reason of the excellence than the number of his pictures. “Grand Falls on the St. John River” and “The Mill Pond at Blair” are, we think, his best exhibits. In the former the beautiful painting of the snow-white, misty cataract with the light upon it is a delicious surprise. Mr. O’Brien’s style and method are so well known that any extended observations of his work seem uncalled for. Mr. Manly displays a vigorous touch and much truth of observation. “A Street in Point Levis” is a very picturesque representation of a sloping street with ancient-looking houses, and “Leafy June a-Summering Comes” is an accurate delineation of a natural bit of river scenery by one who evidently loves the fields. One of the pleasantest pictures of the collection is “Sunshine and Shadow,” by Mr. Fowler, who again displays his characteristic decision of color and strenuous vigor of touch. Mr. Bell-Smith appears to have been in Paris and to have filched some of the mannerisms of the French water-colorists. His success is rather doubtful although the “Street Scene near Notre Dame” is certainly worthy of careful attention. His “Rocky Mountain Canyon” is decidedly good, although the handling of such subjects by our artists in general is usually an opportunity for complete failure. The Rocky Mountain scenes to which we are being constantly treated are impressive and amateurist, of this we consider most of Mr. Matthew’s present exhibits to be noticeable examples. His "Pleasant It was When Woods were Green" is somewhat more satisfactory. Mr. Charles Moss has two very pleasant bits of colour inconspicuous in size, but of real distinction. A clever little bit of local antiquarian interest is Mr. Watt's "Old Mill at Lachine," a little picture, pleasant in tone and very truthful; and Mr. Colin Scott's "South Harpswell, Maine," has some exceedingly attractive features.
       In looking over these walls covered with interesting and promising pictures, a melancholy and frequent thought returns to us that the perverse fates continue to bestow riches on those who neither know how to use them for the benefit of the community, nor have the taste to acquire, by a noble employment of them, a rational satisfaction for themselves. We amuse ourselves by making a short list of the smaller paintings, which even if we were only moderately well-off we should assuredly make haste to buy. Most of all we covet: Mr. Watson's "Evening on the Thames," Mr. Brownell's "Low Tide, N.E.," Mr. Brymner's "Near Killarney, Ireland," Mr. O'Brien's "Grand Falls on the St. John River," Mrs. Reid's "Roses and Still Life," Mr. Woodcock's "Cabbage Garden," Mr. Fowler's "Sunshine and Shadow," and Mr. Manly's "Leafy June A-Summering Comes."