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The Judgement of Paris – a talk at the AGA

Ross King

Yesterday, Sunday October 23rd 2011, I attended a talk by author Ross King at the Art Gallery of Alberta (AGA) – very enjoyable!

Ross King is the author of a number of art history (and fiction) books, two of which I have in my collection. This talk  based on King’s 2006 book “The Judgement of Paris”, coincides with current exhibitions at the AGA – A Passion for Nature: Landscape Painting from 19th Century France and 19th Century French Photographs.

The approach of King’s book and this talk was to compare two French painters in the mid-19th century, the time in which Impressionism was born. King presented a picture of the era, the time of Emperor Napoleon III. It was a a time of change, of modernization but also a time of tradition and a longing for the simplicity and stability of earlier times. The leading French painter of the time was the traditional painter Ernest Meissonier, a painter noted for his  highly detailed depictions of  battle scenes, a painter who was commanding the highest prices ever at the time! Ironically, his name is pretty much forgotten today while the artists and movement that were developing  (and ridiculed) at the same time, are now the most broadly known of all time. I am speaking of Impressionism. King chose to contrast Meissonier with the generation younger Edouard Manet, who would  become the supportive father figure to all of the famous names associated with French Impressionism.

The talk was just over  an hour long (with a good question session), so King couldn’t go very deep or dig into all of the nuances of the time and these two artists. Still the talk was very interesting and inspiring – I will have to re-read Judgement of Paris some time soon.

Ross King’s other most notable book (for my tastes and interests) was his 2010 publication, Defiant Spirits, The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven which talks about the Canadian Group of Seven and significantly its ties to the French Impressionism. I reviewed that book in this earlier blog post.

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Defiant Spirits – a book review

I have just finished reading DEFIANT SPIRITS, The Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven by Ross King. It was a very enjoyable and informative read. King traces the formation of the great, now quintessential Canadian art movement, tying together the characters and the history of the time.

Defiant Spirits by Ross King

Although I was generally familiar with the Group of Seven, there were two fundamental lessons that had never really clicked into place for me before reading this book. The first was the influence of the First World War and secondly the struggle by the Group for acceptance of their art by critics and the public.

The First World War (The Great War) was very important to Canada’s development  as an independent and influential nation on the world stage. I had heard this fact before but King makes it all so clear from the pressure at home to enlist, to the adventures and horrors experienced by members of the future group who fought in the trenches and served as war artists. A significant part of the book is set in Britain providing interesting insights into not only to the Group of Seven and painting, but also to the war effort and military structure.

It seems so hard for me to believe that the style of the Group of Seven met with such resistance in their time. Their art was decried by many critics and the public as radical, revolutionary and just poor art.  The artists felt strong in their commitment to develop a distinctive, modern Canadian style of painting. They benefited from limited but critical support from two people. First was Dr. MacCallum who provided financial support that allowed key members to concentrate on their art and importantly to stay in Canada, so that their collective influences could ignite the movement. Second was the support of the National Gallery  and particularly director Eric Brown and Sir Edmund Walker under whose guidance paintings of the group were purchased (not without criticism and controversy). The strong moral support (and of course the money) from this national institution obviously gave the Group members confidence to carry on with their struggle.

Another aspect of this book (in fact the one that first piqued my interest) was regarding the possible influences of the European art movements of the time upon the Group of Seven members. I have been a long time fan of the the Impressionist and Post-impressionist movements in France and curious if there were any connections with the Canadian landscape painting school. In Defiant Spirits, King does explain a number of connecting threads, such as which of the Canadians studied in Europe or otherwise came into contact with  European art movements of the time.

The book also paints a clear picture of the relation between Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven. I have long believed the supposition that Thomson, had he not died, would surely had been a member of the group, once if formally formed. This book presents so many examples of Thomson interactions with and influence upon the future members of the group (for example sharing studios and travels) that there can be no doubt.

Defiant Spirits is divided into three “books” and each book has a section with color plates of some of the paintings that are discussed. The book also features  numerous black and white photos, particularly of the characters. The book seems to be very well researched (with an extensive bibliography) and definitely is well presented. It is a great story. I don’t hesitate to recommend it to anyone who is interested in the Group of Seven and this period of Canadian history.


“Defiant Spirits” – a book preview

Although I am developing quite a stack of art-related books to read, my most recent acquisition has  jumped to front of the queue!

I am now through the first four chapters of “Defiant Spirits, the Modernist Revolution of the Group of Seven” by Ross King – and I am loving this book. I have been eagerly anticipating this book since I first heard (last winter) that it was coming . As soon as I saw orders were being taken, I put mine in. So why my interest?

Firstly I am a big fan of the quintessential Canadian art movement, the Group of Seven (and of course Tom Thomson) and that is who this books is about. I am eager to understand all I can about how these painters came to see and paint the Canadian landscape the way they did  and this book is certainly aiming to do that. The other great personal influence for my painting was the impressionist and post-impressionists movements. This book attempts to explain ties between the European and Canadian movements, looking at the history of each of the members of the group, their European influences and their interactions with each other. Much has been written (and much I have read)  before about the Group of Seven  but I am learning new things with each page of this book.

I also didn’t hesitate to  purchase this book, given that it was authored by Ross King. I thoroughly enjoyed his award-winning previous book  “The Judgment of Paris”. This Saskatchewan native now based out of England has also written a number of other books that I will have to get around to reading someday – but for now – it’s back to Defiant Spirits