Jean McEwen

The issue of colour brings us to the matter of McEwen's relationship to the work of Claude Monet, with whom I believe he had much in common. Claude Monet was fascinated with snow and then with the water lilies at his place in Giverny. McEwen was, like Monet, an emotional painter, not an illustrator. There is between them both an idea that can be spun out as a metaphorical statement, or read as a deeply poetic image, that needs considerable thought to extract a meaning.


David Silcox
from the catalogue McEwen, Mira Godard Gallery, 2020

McEwen... hit his stride during the decisive years of 1955 and 1956. He was self-taught, spurred on by books on modern artists, rather than pursuing formal art school study.

McEwen had a work accepted for the Annual Spring Exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in 1949, Guy Viau, one of the jurors that year, recommended that he show his work to Borduas. McEwen recalled that the advice he received form the older artist was helpful and positive, but he was less interested in what Borduas had to say about subject matter and Surrealist theories than in what Borduas could teach him about craft. Although McEewen was at this time painting still-lifes and landscape, he gradually adopted Borduas’s style. His first solo show, at Galerie Agnès Lefort [predecessor to Mira Godard Gallery] in 1951, was received enthusiastically in La Presse, whose anonymous reviewer encouraged McEwen “to travel to the fountainhead of European paintings and profit from the artistic atmosphere of the French capital.” 28

-Roald Nasgaard, Abstract Painting in Canada , 2007

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1923 - The artist is born in Montreal on December 14 of a French-Canadian mother and a Scottish father Having completed his secondary studies at the Collège Mont-Saint-Louise, McEwen enrolls in pharmacy at the University of Montreal

1944 - During this period he is much interested in poetry and is one of the group of students that gravitates around French-Canadian poet François Hertel. Certain of his poems are published in Le Quartier Latin and Amérique française. During this year, he is chosen by Guy Sylvestre to contribute to an issue of the magazine Gants duciel (Montreal: Fides, no. 6) along with other student-poetssuch as Gérad Bessette, Roger Roland, Réginald Boisvert, Éloi de Grandmont, Jean Éthier-Blais, Pierre Trottier and François Cloutier.

1946 - Among the films showing at the time, he sees one that affects him deeply: The Moon and Sixpence, based on Somerset Maugham’s account of the life and work of Gauguin. What impresses McEwen about the film is not the picture it draws of the unhappy artist’s life, but its emphasis on painting as a means of expression and on the notion that it is possible to paint and do something else at the same time. Gauguin was actually a “Sunday painter” for over ten years during his employment at the stock exchange. The impact of the film is decisive. McEwen immediately procures the necessary artists’ materials and sets to work. His approach is an autodidactical one: instead of enrolling at the École des Beaux-Arts he purchases books on Matisse, Picasso, Gauguin, Pellan and Borduas. Employing various different styles, he executes a number of heavy-impasto landscapes and some still lifes. Still pursuing his studies in pharmacy, McEwen is working at this time on the fringes of the Montreal art scene and the debates that surrounded the central figure Paul-Émile Borduas. Only recently attracted to figurative painting, he find exhibitions presented by members of the Automatist group during 1946 and 1947 somewhat disconcerting. In June of 1947, he marries Louise Lebeau.

1949 - He sends a work entitled Nature morte à l'ananas to the 66th Annual Spring Exhibition to be held by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. To his great surprise the painting is accepted. He meets Guy Viau, who is a member of the jury. Viau suggests to McEwen that he show the work to Borduas who has just won the Spring Exhibition’s first prize with the work entitled La reunion des trophées. McEwen receives his degree in pharmacy from the University of Montreal in May and begins to work as a pharmacist. Between 1949 and 1951, McEwen visits Borduas at his home in Saint-Hilaire, offering some of his work for comment; he says later that the advice he received was invariably extremely positive. Borduas also talks at length of the figurative content in his own paintings. At this time, McEwen, who is only starting out as a painter, is more concerned with learning his craft than discussing surrealist theories. He nevertheless begins gradually to adopt Borduas’ style, while pursuing his formal investigations in still lifes and landscapes.

1950 - He exhibits work at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ Annual Spring Exhibition.

1951 - In March he has his first solo exhibition at the Galerie Agnès Lefort. The exhibition is given an enthusiastic review in La Presse. The anonymous critic encourages the young painter “to travel to the fountainhead of European painting and profit from artistic atmosphere of the French capital” (La Presse, Montreal, Friday, March 9, 1951). Borduas, who visits the exhibition also encourages McEwen and advises him to contact Jean-Paul Riopelle – in Paris since 1946 – on his arrival. Abandoning his work as a pharmacist, McEwen arrives in Paris in the fall and remains there until December 1952.

1952 - Once in Paris, a very set of particular set of circumstances leads to McEwen’s simultaneous discovery of museum art and of the work of Riopelle, Sam Francis and Jackson Pollock. Apart from the Paris museums, he also visits some in Spain and Italy (in the spring) and in Holland (in the fall). During the summer, he goes to Belle-Île-en-Mer with Riopelle – a trip that is to have a decisive effect on his painting.

1953 - Back in Montreal, McEwen takes a job as a representative in pharmaceutical products for Frosst company. In April-May, he participates in the exhibition “La place des artistes”, which aimed to be more liberal alternative to the Annual Spring Exhibition held by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. McEwen also has a solo show at the gallery of the Foyer de l’art et du livre, in Ottawa.

1954 - Cut off from both the stimulating atmosphere of Paris and from Borduas, who is now in New York, McEwen finds himself in something of an impasse. In spite of a very favourable reviews from Rodolphe de Repentigny and Pierre Saucier of his March 1954 exhibition at Agnès Lefort’s gallery, McEwen decides to abandon the style he has employed so far on the ground that it is too similar to Borduas’ and incapable of providing a solution to the figure-ground problem.

1955 - He displays the results of his new explorations in February at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts when he participates in Espace 55, an exhibition organized by Gilles Corbeil designed to illustrate the new orientation being taken by non-figurative painting in Quebec. This exhibition reveals the gulf between Borduas and the younger generation of painters in two ways: firstly, by its explicitly-stated goal of distancing itself from Automatism and from the 1954 exhibition-manifesto La matière chante; and secondly by the contempt shown towards the exhibition by Borduas himself, who is still living in New York. Among the other artists to have their work presented in Espace 55 are Pateson, Ewen, Mousseau, Letendre, Comtois, Dupras, Émond, Lajoie, Gauvreau and Molinari. \ In June, McEwen participates in the first group exhibition organized by the brand new Galerie L’Actuelle. This gallery, which had opened in May by Guido Molinari and Fernande Saint-Martin, had a well-defined goal: to promote non-figurative painting. During the summer, McEwen works at the “Vieux Moulin” in Saint-Eustache, which had been renovated as a house and lent to the artist by owner in exchange for some paintings. In November-December, Molinari organizes a group show that is held at the University of Montreal’s Hautes Études Commerciales. McEwen’s contribution to the show is a monochrome painting which, in the eyes of Le Devoir critic Noël Lajoie, already shows affinities with “the most contemporary aspect of American art”.

1956 - At its founding in February of this year, McEwen becomes a member of the Association des artistes non-figuratifs de Montréal (hence-forth referred to as the AANFM). In February, he exhibits another white monochrome in a group exhibition at the Galerie L’Actuelle. He also takes part in a group show held at the Hélène de Champlain restaurant from February to April. During the summer he executes most of the remaining paintings in the white monochrome series; they are, at this time, presented without titles. In September, he presents two paintings and six watercolours in the exhibition Modern Canadian Painters – a show held at the Parma Gallery in New York that had been organized by Molinari as an exchange for an exhibition of American and foreign painters. The artists featured in this latter show – whose names were kindly communicated to us by Guido Molinari – were Paul Brach, Bultman, Greenberg, Harvey, Hines, Hokanson, Keyser, Metz, Moller, Olsen and Thomas. In November, he presents his large white monochromes in a solo show at L’Actuelle. This exhibition marks McEwen’s departure from Agnès Lefort’s gallery; she had refused to exhibit the white monochromes, claiming that they went beyond the art she was prepared to defend.

1957 - As a member of the AANFM, McEwen participates in the following exhibitions: the Deuxième Exposition annuelle at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (February-March); Paintings on Exhibition at the Montreal YMCA (summer); Western Canada Art Circuit, a travelling exhibition (October 1956-July 1957).

1958 - From January 27 to February 9, McEwen exhibits Marges series at the Galerie Denyse Delrue. These paintings mark the reintroduction of colour into the artist’s work. It is at this time hat he begins systematically giving titles to all his paintings and also retrospectively assigns titles to the 1955-1956 monochromes. As a member of the AANFM, he takes part in the Troisième Exposition annuelle held at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts in early August. From November 25 until December 7, McEwen has his second solo show at the Galerie Denyse Delrue. It marks the beginning of the Cellule series.

1959 - He takes part in The Third Biennial Exhibition of Canadian Art held at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. In February-March, again as a member of the AANFM, he participates in the exhibition Exposition Art at the Collège Saint-Laurent. During the late fifties he makes several short trips to New York at around Easter time, visiting various museums and galleries.

1960 - McEwen is elected president of the AANFM. - He holds a one-man show in Galerie XII at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He takes a vacation to Ogunquit, Maine, where he produces his first artist’s book. It consists of a hand-written text in which his own poems are accompanied by pictorial motifs.

1961 - Walter Moos, visiting Montreal, expresses interest in McEwen’s painting and sets about organizing the artist’s first solo show Toronto. It is a great success. Start of the Fil à plomb series. He takes part in four group shows: The Fourth Biennial Exhibition of Canadian Art in Ottawa, an exhibition of the C.I.L. Collection held at Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, the Annual Spring Exhibition at the same institution and 25 Quebec Painters at the Stratford Festival in Ontario. He wins first prize in the Concours artistique de la Province de Québec with Midi temps jaune, now in the collection of the Musée du Québec in Quebec City. He is also awarded the Hadassah prize. He receives a grant from the Canada Council which enables him to execute a series of very large works. He makes his first trip to Prince Edward Island – which is to become the principal site of his watercolour production.

1962 - Through the meditation of Walter Moos he meets Martha Jackson, in Montreal for the Borduas retrospective. She shows a good deal of interest in his work and proves it by buying several paintings for her New York gallery and offering him a one-man show for the following year. As well as holding another solo exhibition at Gallery Moos, in Toronto, McEwen shows again at the Galerie Agnès Lefort which was taken over by Mira Godard. He also participates in a number of group shows: the Annual Spring Exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Peintures de collections canadiennes at the Musée de Bordeaux, in France; an international exhibition in Tunisia; an exhibition of work by Canadian artist at the Albright-Knox Art Gallery in Buffalo; Commonwealth Art at the Commonwealth Institute in London, England; Recent Acquisitions at the Museum of Modern Art in New York; and Contemporary Canadian Painting in Johannesburg, South Africa. A Work by McEwen entitled Rouge sur noir is selected for acquisition by the Winnipeg Art Gallery (Purchase Award) at the 1st Winnipeg Biennial.

1963 - Encouraged by his dealer, Walter Moos, McEwen decides to work shorter hours for Frosst, so as to be able to devote more time to painting. This has an immediate positive effect, and his reputation soon spreads outside Canada. First, in February, there is a solo show at the Martha Jackson Gallery in New York. The significance of this event can be gauged from the list of other artists represented by the gallery: they include Sam Francis, Antoni Tàpies, Lucio Fontana, Paul-Émile Borduas, Jackson Pollock and Franz Kline. McEwen travels to New York for the opening. This new development, along with the acquisition of two of his painting by the Museum of Modern Art, is at the root of his participation in a number of travelling exhibitions in both North America and Europe: Contemporary American Painting and Sculpture at the University of Illinois, Champaign; Contemporary Canadian Painting at the University of Rochester, Rochester, N.Y.; a group exhibition at the Arwin Galleries in Detroit, Michigan; Fifteen Canadian Artists, a travelling exhibition organized by the Museum of Modern Art in New York; Ier Salon des Galeries pilotes at the Palais de Rumine in Lausanne, Switzerland; Dunn International Exhibition shown in Fredericton, New Brunswick, and London, England; Cinq peintres canadiens at the Musée Galliera in Paris; 5th Biennial Exhibition of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa; and the Annual Spring Exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. (At this last exhibition Mcewen receives a honourable mention for his painting Médiane traversant le mauve.) McEwen sends six paintings to the Biennial in São Paolo, Brazil; he is given an honourable mention for the works as a group. At the request of architect John Parkin, he executes a large, five-panel mural for Toronto airport entitled Rouge en liesse. On a fall trip to Greece he visits Crete and the island of Rhodes. He is very struck by the Byzantine icons he sees and brings one back as a souvenir. This icon is to have a decisive influence on his subsequent work.

1964 - The work accomplished during this years represents a culmination point in bthe artist’s development. In April, works from the important Drapeaux inconnus series are exhibited in a one-man show at the Gallery Moos in Toronto. A work from the same series is awarded the Jessie Dow prize at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ 81st Annual Spring Exhibition. Moos arranges for another part of the series to be exhibited in June, in a solo show at the Galerie Anderson-Mayer in Paris. Finally, one of these works is presented – probably through the intervention of Paris critic Jean Cathelin – at the international Salon Confrontation held at the Musèe de Dijon, in France. After his Paris exhibition, McEwen visits the island of Majorca; this trip marks the start of a new series entitled Hommage au soliel that is presented in October at the Galerie Agnès Lefort in Montreal. During this year he reads The Anxious Object by Harold Rosenberg, which had been given to him by Martha Jackson. He is also featured in an extremely important annual art publication – New York: The Art World – that is edited by James R. Mellow and includes articles by such renowned critics as Hilton Kramer, Michael Fried, Max Kozloff and Clement Greenberg.

1965 - This is a year of intense research, marked by a major change of direction. McEwen abandons oil paint and varnishes, and the textural effects they render possible, and begins using acrylic paint, applied in thin layers. He also adopts certain of the techniques of American hard-edge painting, including the use of masking tape. In the fall, he exhibits the new Hommage aux poètes series at the Gallery Moos in Toronto. Each of the works bears as a title line by Baudelaire, Valéry or Michel Beaulieu. During this same year McEwen creates the illustrations for a collection of poems by Beaulieu, entitled Le pain quotidien. He participates in several group exhibitions: Fifteen Canadian Artists, a travelling exhibition organized by New York’s Museum of Modern Art; the Sixth Biennial Exhibition of Canadian Painting at the National Gallery in Ottawa; and the Annual Spring Exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. He is also awarded a grant by the Canada Council.

1966 - McEwen, who up until now had worked in one of the rooms of his Outremont house, rents a large studio on Rue Saint-Paul. He creates the design for a group of stained glass windows for Sir George Williams University (now Concordia University) in Montreal. While on a trip to New York he sees Barnett Newman’s Stations of the Cross exhibition at the Guggenheim Museum. He executes the Les Muses series. He takes part in two exhibitions: a show organized by the National Gallery of Canada entitled Jean McEwen, Harold Town that travels across the country; and Vingt-cinq ans de liberation de l’oeil et du geste, held at Musée du Québec in Quebec City.

1967 - McEwen executes a mural in oils for the Théâtre Port-Royal of Montreal’s Place des Arts; the piece is entitled Éclats de gaîte verte. In the spring, he exhibits works from the La folie conduisant l’amour series at the Galerie Agnès Lefort and, in the fall, the À ma jolie series is shown at the gallery Moos in Toronto. This was to be his last exhibition with Walter Moos. He visits Italy (including Sicily) and England. He takes part in several group shows: Panorama de la peinture au Québec 1940-1966 at the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal; Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa; Painting in Canada at the Canadian Pavilion of Expo 67, in Montreal; and Ontario Centennial Art Exhibition at the Art Gallery of Ontario, in Toronto.

1968 - McEwen participates in two exhibitions: Sondage 68 at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, at which he receives an honourable mention; and Dix peintres du Québec shown at the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal and at the Musée du Québec City.

1969 - He is named an academician of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. In February, he exhibits his _Corps à corps…_series at the Galerie Godard LeFort, in Montreal. These paintings executed in 1968, indicate a certain change of orientation. During the summer, he makes a trip to Portugal. A one-man show at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City marks the end of the use of acrylic and of all links with American hard-edge painting.

1970 - McEwen takes part in two group exhibitions: Art in Quebec, 1948-1970 at Man and His World, in Montreal; and Grands formats at the Musée d’art contemporain, Montreal.

1973 - McEwen resigns his post at Frosst in order to paint full time. In January, he exhibits the “Das Lied von der Erde” series (named after a work by Gustav Mahler) at the Marlborough Godard Gallery, in Toronto, and executes a series of four lithographs entitled Les quatre saisons. A retrospective exhibition of his work entitled McEwen 1953-1973 is organized by Fernande Saint-Martin and held at the Musée d’art contemporain from September 30 until October 28. The Muses series from 1967 is shown juxtaposed with more recent works – such as Laque des pays vastes (1971) and Compagnons de silence (1973) – for the first time. He takes part in an exhibition of the collection of Canada’s Art Bank, held at the Canadian Cultural Centre in paris. His retrospective travels to several Canadian cities.

1974 - He participates in the exhibition Thirteen Artists from Marlborough Godard at the Marlborough Gallery in New York (September-October) .

1975 - In the spring, he exhibits the Les continents fleuris series at Marlborough Godard Gallery in Toronto. He produces an artist’s book entitled Les îles reunites, consisting of a poetic text of his own accompanied by a group of serigraphs. The book is executed at the Centre de conception graphique Graff, in Montreal.

1976 - In March he exhibits the Jardins d’aube series at the Galerie Marlborough Godard Gallery in Montreal. He also has a one-man show at the Equinox Gallery in Vancouver and participates in the exhibition Trois generations d’art québécois at the Musée d’art contemporain in Montreal. \ He marries Indra Kagis.

1977 - In March, at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto, he exhibits the Épithalames series, which shows clear links with the white monochromes of 1955-1956. He exhibits at the Place des Arts, as part of a series of exhibition organized by Flammarion. He receives the Victor Lynch-Staunton award from the Canada Council, given to artists judged to have made a particularly notable contribution to the arts. This grant enables him to work in April from September 1977 until June 1978.

1978 - In March, he holds an exhibition at the Galerie Mira Godard in Montreal featuring the Temple heureux series. In May-June, he exhibits the highly colourful Suite parisienne series – executed during his stay in the French capital – at the Canadian Cultural Centre in Paris. He visits Greece, Algeria and England.

1979 - In March, he exhibits the Suites parisienne at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto. He vacations in Prince Edward Island. As well as producing the usual number of watercolours, McEwen creates a third artist’s book illustrated with watercolour vignettes that continue the theme of the Suite parisienne series.

1980 - McEwen accepts a post of lecturer (for a course on colour) at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. He holds a solo exhibition at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City in March. He has his first solo exhibition in Calgary, at Mira Godard Gallery.

1981 - McEwen continues to teach at l’Université du Québec à Trois-Rivières. In February-March he exhibits the Les champs colorés series at Mira Godard’s Gallery in Toronto, and in November at her gallery in Calgary. From December 1981 to January 1982 there is an important exhibition held at the new Galerie Jolliet in Montreal, entitled Les tableaux oubliés de Jean McEwen and featuring primarily the white monochromes from 1955-1956.

1982 - In January, McEwen exhibits recent works at the Galerie Jolliet in Quebec City and at the Sir George Williams Art Gallery of Concordia University in Montreal. In October, the artist takes part in a group show at the Musée d’art de Saint-Laurent. In December, he has a one-man show at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1983 - McEwen accepts a post as lecturer in painting at Concordia University. He takes part in an exhibition organized by Sandra Paikowsky that focuses on the Association des artistes non-figuratifs de Montréal. In December, he exhibits the Les plaints d’un Icare series at the Galerie Jolliet in Montreal.

1984 - In September, the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto presents a selection of his work under the title Jean McEwen: Thirty Years.

1985 - He participates in the exhibition Six manières, un langage held at the Musée du Québec, in Quebec City. In December, he exhibits the Drapeaux écorchés series at the Galerie Waddington & Gorce, in Montreal. He resigns his teaching post in Trois-Rivières, but continues to lecture at Concordia University. He receives a Canada Council grant that enables him to devote himself even more intensively to his painting. He takes part in the travelling exhibition Montreal Painting: A Second Look, organized jointly by the Memorial University Art Gallery, St. John’s, Newfoundland, and by Sandra Paikowsky of Concordia University in Montreal.

1986 - He exhibits a second part of the Drapeaux écorchés series at the Mira Godard Gallery in Toronto.

1987 - He participates in the exhibition Histoire en quatre temps, held at the Musée d’art contemporain de Montréal from March to May.

1987-88 - Jean McEwen: Colour in Depth at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (December 11, 1987 to January 24, 1988).

1999 - Jean McEwen passes away on January 9.

2019 - Untamed Colour: Celebrating Jean McEwen opens at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

For additional works, please contact the gallery.