Work & Bio

Goodridge Roberts

Born in 1904
 / Died in 1974

View biography... View selected works...
Biography

Goodridge Roberts
1904 – 1974

“Must the artist, like the tight-rope walker in a dream-like state of composure, yet always aware of the gulf at his feet, feel both the elation and the uneasiness? One is made forcibly aware of the tension under which one has been working by the sense of relief with which one contemplates a work well done, or of extreme dejection before a badly realized work. There is no truce in this conflict until the brushes are laid down.”
(Goodridge Roberts, 1953)

The Canadian painter, watercolourist and draughtsman Goodridge Roberts is best known for his landscapes of Quebec hills and fields. Using rapid brushstrokes and intense, warm colours, Roberts created a sense of vast space. In figure paintings and still lifes, he used the same loose style, always paying close attention to the relationship of forms.

Born into a family of poets, Goodridge Roberts spent two years studying at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts, where he found inspiration in the work of James Wilson Morrice and Puvis de Chavannes. From 1926 to 1928, he studied at New York’s Art Students League, under John Sloan, Max Weber and Boardman Robinson, who introduced him to the work of the Italian Primitives, especially Giotto, and the French Modernists. After finishing his studies, Roberts worked for a year as a draughtsman, before moving to Ottawa in 1930. He soon organized a class at the Ottawa Art Association, where he exhibited his work, and opened a summer school for painting in nearby Wakefield, in the Gatineau Valley. Over the years, Roberts would spend his summers painting in a number of different regions of Eastern Canada, including Georgian Bay, the Laurentians, Eastern Townships and Charlevoix.

In 1932, Roberts held his first solo exhibition at Montreal’s Arts Club, where he came to the attention of John Lyman. Four years later, after a period as artist-in-residence at Queen’s University, Kingston, he moved to Montreal, where he joined up with Ernest Neumann to open the Roberts-Neumann School of Art. He became a charter member of the Eastern Group of Painters and the Contemporary Arts Society in 1938 and 1939, respectively. He taught at the Art Association of Montreal for the better part of a decade, with a two-year gap during World War II, when he was stationed in England as an official war artist. In 1953, Roberts received a fellowship to paint in Europe, and spent several months in Paris, Italy and Agay, on the Côte d’Azur. In 1959, he was appointed the first artist-in-residence at the University of New Brunswick.

It was while living in the Gatineau in the early 1930s that Roberts created the series of rapidly executed watercolour sketches that helped to solidify his style. Lake Orford (1945) demonstrates his free brushwork, open composition and rich, nuanced colours. Nude Boy (1942) is an example of his figure work, with its characteristic frontal composition and strong contrasts of light and dark.

Among Roberts’s many national and international exhibitions was the National Gallery of Canada’s 1969 retrospective, a rare honour for a living artist. Roberts was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (1956) and the Order of Canada (1969). He held an honorary doctorate from the University of New Brunswick (1960).

Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada

ROBERTS, Goodridge

1904-1974

Born in The Barbados, B.W.I., where his parents were on a short vacation, the son of Theodore Goodridge Roberts, poet and novelist, and Frances Seymour Allen. The family returned to Fredericton to live with his paternal grandfather, then rector of the Anglican parish church. He moved with his parents to England in 1908; to France in 1910; back to Canada and Fredericton in 1912; back to England in 1914 to join his father who was then in the army with the Canadian contingent. In England at Folkestone, Goodridge Roberts became a Boy Scout and later troop leader. When his family moved to London he made visits to Kensington Gardens where one spring day after a brief shower of rain he became keenly aware of the greenness of the leaves on the trees and the variations in the shades of green, the symmetry of the trees and the sunlight falling upon them and other beautiful sights. This experience gave him a sense of happiness and the desire to record what he saw. He returned to the Gardens with some water colours and a pad and painted some trees by the Serpentine. From that point on he drew and painted intermittently. In 1917 his father served as A.D.C. to General Sir Arthur Currie. In 1919 the family returned to Canada. Roberts attended Charlotte Street School in Fredericton and in the autumn moved to Ottawa where his father was still in the army. They spent that summer at Kingsmere. By 1922 he was in Fredericton where he graduated from High School the following year. Summers he worked in logging camps, on road gangs, and on farms. In the autumn he entered the newly opened Ecole des Beaux-Arts, where he studied for the next two years (1923-25). As a student he won all the prizes during the first year and in the second year further began to develop his painting style. He visited James Wilson Morrice’s retrospective exhibition at the Art Association of Montreal. Morrice’s paintings made a vivid impression on the young aspiring artist, especially his use of green, black and brown, as in his “Landscape Trinidad” (NGC) also Morrice’s ability to simplify his subjects without losing essence and mood. He studied next at the Art Students’ League in New York under John Sloan, Boardman Robinson and Max Weber (1926-28). Under Sloan he spent two years drawing from the nude in rapid five minute sketches which developed in him an ability to assess his subjects rapidly and express their essentials in simple terms. Under Robinson he studied figure drawing during longer poses, and through him he came to know the work of Giotto and the Italian primitives. From Weber he gained some insight into the aims of the French moderns and under him made his first experiments in painting still life and the human figure. Weber’s classes influenced Roberts’ painting profoundly. Roberts’ still life and figure studies consequently show the influence of Cézanne and Matisse, especially Matisse’s bold use of colours in backgrounds. Following his study in New York Roberts returned to Fredericton where he worked as a draftsman in the provincial forestry service (1929). He kept up his art by doing one water colour before and after work each day. He moved to Ottawa in 1930 when the Great Depression was underway and attempted to sell Fuller brushes with little success. Turning to teaching he opened a summer art school at Wakefield, on the Gatineau River with William Firth McGregor and Bernard More, in a farm-house on the heights above the town. The inauguration of the school was attended by poet Duncan Campbell Scott; Willis O’Connor, A.D.C. to the Governor General; Eric Brown, Director of the National Gallery of Canada, and other notables from Ottawa. The School was later moved to a cottage by the river. During this year Roberts began to show in exhibitions of the Ottawa Art Association and at Lyle Courtney’s. In May of 1932 he began tenting for the summer on the property of H.O. McCurry, Assistant Director of the National Gallery of Canada. The property was located in the woods at Kingsmere and provided Roberts with rent-free living quarters surrounded by ample subject matter for painting. He stayed on until late autumn and did many water colours with a limited palette using the primaries of green, purple and black. He lived off the proceeds of weekly painting lessons given to two friends at fifty cents a lesson. During this year he held his first one-man show at the Arts Club of Montreal which was organized by Ernst Neumann who had been a fellow student at the Ecole des Beaux-Arts. John Lyman purchased a drawing from the exhibition and gave Roberts his first critical recognition. Lyman invited him in 1933 to take part in a group exhibition at Henry Morgan & Co. in Montreal. Later Roberts became a member of the Eastern Group (1939) and of the Contemporary Art Society (1939). During the summer of this year he moved his tent to an elevation just off the Montreal Road a few miles outside Ottawa overlooking great stretches of flat country divided into fields of grain and interspersed with wood-lots and farm buildings. His skies became dark with blackish purples, blues, or reds and fiery clouds. The National Gallery of Canada acquired one of these paintings in 1941 entitled “Ottawa Valley”. That autumn he became resident artist under a Carnegie grant (1933-36) at Queen’s University and in December of that year he married Marian Susan Willson, a dancer, and only daughter of T.L. Willson (discoverer of the method of manufacturing calcium carbide). Marian became her husband’s model on numerous occasions. During that year among other activities, Roberts painted at Lake Bernard in the Gatineau. In 1935 he did his first landscapes in oils. After his Carnegie grant expired at Queen’s, he moved with his wife to Montreal where he painted, lectured and taught art privately. There he shared a studio with Ernst Neumann who also became his partner in the Roberts-Neumann School of Art. But he returned to paint in the Ottawa region after his move to Montreal. He exhibited frequently in Montreal, Toronto and Ottawa. Summers he painted in the rural areas of Quebec, and winters he taught drawing and painting at the Art Association of Montreal School of Art (1939-43). He spent two summers at Saint-Jovite in a farm-house belonging to John Lyman (1939-1940). In March of 1943 he held a retrospective exhibition at Dominion Gallery which was organized by Maurice Gagnon. Sixty or so paintings in water colours and oils, of landscapes, still lifes and figures were noted by Dorothy Sangster of the Montreal Standard as follows, “Mr. Roberts’ countrysides are alert and colorful and sensitive. Laurentian lakes are deeply blue; trees are dark green sentinel shapes that stretch along some distant ridge or close in to make a mystery of their own in the foreground. The thick yellow dust of a still summer day is caught in one arresting study; in another, colors are emphasized and stressed and deepened and a red road ploughs through the fields in startling contrast. . . . In his portraits, Mr. Roberts is equally skilled. Slim young boys and girls with questioning eyes and still faces – these are his models. And with a strong brush and the utmost simplicity of treatment he has succeeded in painting the very essence of sensitive youth. An accentuated use of color in these portraits is interesting.” This was Roberts’ first financially successful exhibition (48 of his paintings were sold). In August of 1943 he enlisted in the RCAF and was commissioned and appointed war artist the same day. He shipped overseas in November and began recording scenes of the Coastal Command station near Ford on the south coast of Sussex. During the winter months he produced mostly pencil drawings of air crew and interiors of hangars and barracks. He moved to Coastal Command at Exeter and Devon; Bomber Command in Yorkshire; airfields at Middleton, St. George. He returned to Canada in 1944 having completed 116 drawings and water colours for War Records. He was officially released from the RCAF in February, 1945 and spent the summer at Lake Orford in the Eastern Townships of Quebec where he painted “Lake Orford”, one of his most beautiful landscapes in oils acquired by the National Gallery of Canada two years later. This year Roberts and his wife Marian separated. In the autumn he returned to teaching at the Art Association of Montreal. For the next eight years he exhibited on numerous occasions; he received many honours; painted in Eastern Townships, Laurentians, Baie-St. Paul. In 1953 he did thirty to forty still lifes during the winter months. After his father died in February of 1953, he spent a brief but intense period painting self-portraits. In October of 1953 his story of his artistic development was published in the Autumn issue of the Queen’s Quarterly under the title “From This Point I Looked Out”. This essay gives an important insight into his development. From his early youth he was aware of another form of artistic expression – poetry. From his studies at school and from the influence of his father, his uncle, Sir Charles G.D. Roberts and his cousin Bliss Carmen, he expressed himself through a poetry closely linked to his love of landscape and the moods of nature experienced by him as a landscape painter. His poetry creates in words, landscapes very close to his paintings, along with his thoughts evoked by the subject he is viewing. Nature oriented, his poetry is very successful. Never able to make a living by his painting alone, he reluctantly taught painting. He dreamt of the day when he could put classes aside and paint full time. From 1953 on he came closer than ever to living off the sale of his paintings but he continued to lecture from time to time. In 1954 he married Joan Carruthers Carter. A Canadian Government overseas fellowship allowed him a year’s study in France. In 1952 he was elected Assoc. Member of the Royal Canadian Academy and in 1956 he was elected full member. He continued to receive awards for his work and was chosen to represent Canada in many exhibitions nationally and internationally. In 1956 he also acquired with Alfred Pinsky a farm near Calumet Island which he used as a summer home. There he did many fine paintings. Earlier he entered an agreement with the Dominion Gallery to supply paintings in many sizes. This provided him with an annual income until 1957. Two years later in 1959 he was appointed first resident artist at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton under the sponsorship of the Canada Council. This gave him an opportunity to paint along the Saint John River and for the first time he painted winter landscapes. At the end of his tenure at U.N.B. he was awarded an Honorary Doctor of Laws at Spring Encaenia. In 1962 he was back painting at Wakefield, Quebec; at Calumet; near Pointe-au-Baril, Georgian Bay and at North Hatley. In 1967 his work was exhibited at the Canadian Pavilion at Expo 67 and at Centennial exhibition of the National Gallery of Canada. In 1970 James Borcoman of the National Gallery of Canada organized, with Alfred Pinsky as consultant, a retrospective exhibition of 146 works by Roberts consisting of landscapes, figures, portraits and still lifes. On many oils there were no dates, making dating difficult for the organizers. Viewing this exhibition Robert Ayre noted, “The earliest works in the exhibition are landscapes from the beginning of the thirties, when he was living in Ottawa. At Kingsmere, in the miraculous summer of 1932, he discovered with a rush of confidence that he could paint, and he painted feverishly, one water color after another. Most of them seem to be lost, and there are only half a dozen in the show. . . . He painted water colors in those days because they were all he could afford, but when he did paint in oils, he lost none of the spontaneity. Even the largest of his canvases have been done on the spot and never retouched in the studio. The idea of sketches to be painted up afterwards doesn’t seem to have occurred to him. All his landscapes are sketches. This does not mean, however, that they lack weight. There is a classic grandeur in the paintings of Lake Orford in the forties, for example, and the Saint John River in the sixties. Roberts is an intuitive painter, but he is so well­schooled that the feeling for form is second nature to him. . . . As we all know, Roberts’ place in painting is measured as much by his portraits, figures and still lifes as by his landscapes, and to some the painting of slower growth, the indoor painting, is the more important. . . . Out of the few elements to hand in the studio – jars, flowers, fruits, books – he builds his melodies of color and form. The figure paintings are calm in their stillness and in their utter simplicity, human but untroubled by emotion, timeless. Goodridge Roberts stands alone in Canadian painting. Through his pure plasticity, unaffected by intellectual ideas, runs the poetry that has nothing to do with literature, the poetry that is seen and felt, that quickens our senses, lifts the ordinary into other dimensions and makes it memorable. In the light of today, it is conservative painting, but it is alive, as good painting, no matter how fashions change, remains alive.” In January of 1974 Goodridge Roberts died. He was survived by his wife Joan and their son Timothy (b. 1962). His wife continues to help organizers of shows of her husband’s work and to open these shows. His solo exhibits are: Arts Club of Montreal (1932) (1939) (1941); James Wilson Galleries, Ott. (1933) (1938); Hart House, Univ. Tor. (1933) (1938) (1951); Queen’s Univ. (1934) (1935); Scott Gallery, Mtl. (1938); Mtl. Mus. F.A. (1940) (1942) (1950); Beaux­Arts, Mtl. (1940) (1942); Contempo Art Studios, Ott. (1941); McGill Univ., Mtl. (1942) (1945); Dominion Gallery, Mtl. (1943) (1945) (1948) (1949) (1950) (1952) (1953) (1955) (1962); Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1943); Collège Brébeuf, Mtl. (1943); Western Art Circuit (1944) (1954); L’Atelier, Que. (1951) (1957); New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B. (1954); Galerie R. Creuze, Paris, France (1954); University of New Brunswick Art Centre (1954) (1963); Vancouver Art Gallery (1954); Robertson Galleries, Ott. (1958) (1963); Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, N.B. (1960); Waddington Galleries, Mtl. (1961); Penthouse Gallery, Mtl. (1961); Kitchener-Waterloo, Ont. (1963); “War Painter”, NGC, Ott. (1964); Roberts Gallery, Tor. (1966); Hamilton Art Gallery, Ont. (1969); travelling retrosp., NGC. Ott. (1970); Galerie Bernard Desroches Inc., Mtl. (1979); Southern Alberta Art Gallery, Lethbridge, Alta. (1982); “The Figure Works”, Concordia University Art Gallery, Mtl. (1984); AGO sponsored show, Burlington Cultural Centre, Ont. (1984); AEAC Queen’s Univ., Kingston (1976-77). His awards include: Jessie Dow Prize for Water Colour painting, Mtl. (1939) (1947) (1958); Musée du Québec purchase award (1948); RCAF Assoc. purchase award of Painting for presentation to Queen Elizabeth (1952); Can. Govt overseas fellowship (1953); Wpg. Art Gallery Junior League award (1957); 3rd Biennial of Canadian Art, NGC, Gazebrook Award (1959); LL.D from U.N.B. (1960); Art Gal. Hamilton purchase award (1963); Canada Council art award (1966-67); Retrospective exhibition seldom accorded living artists at National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 1970, touring to four other public galleries; represented Canada in many international exhibitions. He is represented in the following collections: University of British Columbia; Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C.; Edmonton Art Gallery, Alta.; Winnipeg Art Gallery, Man.; Willistead Art Gallery. Windsor, Ont.; Art Gallery of Hamilton, Ont.; Hart House, Unv. Tor.; Art Gallery of Ontario, Tor.; University of Guelph, Ont.; Queen’s University, Kingston, Ont.; NGC, Ottawa; Firestone Art Collection, Ottawa; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, Mtl.; Concordia Univ., Mtl.; McGill University, Mtl.; Quebec Provincial Museum, Que.; Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton, N.B.; University of N.B. Student Centre; Dalhousie University, Hal., N.S.; Bezalel Museum Israel and elsewhere. He is represented in many private collections.

Colin S. MacDonald

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Studied at

Graduated from Fredericton High School in 1923
Entered l’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Montreal in the autumn of 1923
Studied at the Art Student’s League, New York, 1926 - 28

Awards

1933, Carnegie Grant for artist residency at Queen’s
1939,47,58, Jesse Dow Prize for Water Colour Painting
1948, Musee du Quebec Purchase Award
1952, RCAF Assoc. Purchase Award
1954, Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship
1957, Winnipeg Art Gallery Junior League Award
1959, 3rd, Biennial of Canadian Art
1959, Canada Council Grant for Residency at University of New Brunswick
1960, Honorary Doctor of Laws, Spring Ecaenia
1963, Art Gallery of Hamilton Purchase Award
1967, Canada Council Award

Professional Activities

1929, Worked as a draftsman with the provincial forestry service, Fredericton
1930, Moved to Ottawa and worked as a Fuller Brush Salesman. Organized classes with the Ottawa Art Association
1931 Opened a summer school for painters in Wakefield Quebec
1933 Resident artist, Queen’s University
1943 Appointed Official War Artist
1945 Returned to teaching at the Art Association
1953 Worked and lived mainly off his paintings
1954 Studied for a year in France
1959 Appointed first resident artist at the University of New Brunswick

Member of

Royal Canadian Academy
Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour
Canadian Group of Painters
Canadian Arts Society, Montreal
Eastern Group

Group Exhibitions

1928 Fredericton, NB
1932,39,41 Arts Club of Montreal
1933,38, James Wilson & Company, Ottawa
1933,39,51, Hart House Gallery, Toronto
1934,35, Queen’s University
1938, W. Scott and Sons, Montreal
1940,42,50, Art Association of Montreal
1940,42, L’Ecole des Beaux-Arts, Montreal
1942,45, McGill University
1943,45,47,48,49,50,52,53,55,62, Dominion Gallery, Montreal
1943,54, Vancouver Art Gallery
1944, National Gallery, London, England
1949,53,63,64,67,69, National Gallery of Canada
1951,57,59,61,64 Roberts Gallery, Toronto
1952,60 Museum of Fine Arts, Montreal
1951,57 Galerie l’Atelier, Quebec
1952, Venice Beinnale (Canada’s 1st participation)
1954,63, New Brunswick Museum, St. John
1954, Galerie R. Creuze, Paris
1961, Waddington Galleries, Montreal
1962, Penthouse Gallery, Montreal
1964, Tate Gallery, London
1967, Canadian Pavilion, Expo 67
1969, Hamilton Art Gallery
1970, Retrospective, National Gallery of Canada (also Travelling)
1979, Galerie Bernard DesRoches, Montreal
1980, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto
1981, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon

Collections

Vancouver Art Gallery
Edmonton Art Gallery
Winnipeg Art Gallery
Willistead Art Gallery, Windsor
Art Gallery of Hamilton
Hart House, University of Toronto
Art Gallery of Ontario
University of Guelph
Queen's University, Kingston
National Gallery of Canada
Firestone Art  Collection
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
University of British Columbia
Concordia University, Montreal
McGill University, Montreal
Quebec Provincial Museum
Lord Beaverbrook Art Gallery, Fredericton
University of New Brunswick
Dalhousie University, Halifax
Bezalel Museum, Isreal
Many Private Collections