Marc-Aurèle Fortin’s (1888-1970) style is completely unique within Canadian art. His techniques were often experimental, such his manière noire (black manner) where he would apply paint directly from the tube to an entirely blackened surface. In the catalogue for his 1963 retrospective at the National Gallery of Canada, Jean-René Ostiguy wrote, “…Fortin oscillated between decorative imagery and Fauvism. When he was at his best, he mingled the two…”
BORN: March 14, 1888 in Saint-Rose, Quebec
DIED: March 2, 1970 in Macamic, Quebec
STUDIED: In Montreal, under Edward Dyonett at the Monument National, and with Ledger Larose at the Ecole du Plateau from 1904 to 1908. Later at the Art Institute of Chicago, as well as in New York and Boston under Tarbellm, Timmons, Vanderpoel and Alexander before returning to Montreal in 1914.
AWARDS: The Jessie Dow Award (Art Association of Montreal) 1938
Bronze Medal, New York World’s Fair, 1939
PROFESSIONAL ACTIVITIES: Work at a Montreal post office beginning around 1908, then moved west and worked in a bank in Edmonton, Alberta from 1908 to 1910. During this period, and through until 1920, he produced very little work. Traveled to the South of France, and Northern Italy in 1935, after which he exhibited regularly. Generally stopped painting in 1950 after becoming seriously ill.
MEMBER: Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1942
COMMISSIONS: Mural for the City of Montreal Community Hall at Peel Street
SELECT EXHIBITIONS: 1929, Chicago
1930, Pretoria, South Africa
1937, T. Eaton Company in Montreal
1938, Group exhibit at the Tate Gallery, London: “A Century of Canadian Art.”
1944, One-man show, Retrospective, Quebec Provincial Museum
1945, L’Art Francais gallery in Montreal
1945, Brazil: “Canadian Art in Brazil”
1954, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
1964, Retrospective, National Gallery of Canada
COLLECTIONS: National Gallery of Canada
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
Musee d’Art Contemporain, Montreal
Art Gallery of Ontario
Collection of General Charles Du Gaulle after a piece by Fortin was chosen as a gift for him by the Prime Minister of Quebec in 1960
Many National and International public and private collections
1888 – 1970
“All artists are influenced by others in their technique, in their craft. But a real artist preserves his Ivory Tower, which is impenetrable. The Ivory Tower is the area of inspiration, it’s where the artist goes to get his ideas about art.”
(Marc-Aurèle Fortin, 1969)
The prolific Marc-Aurèle Fortin was a painter, watercolourist, printmaker and draughtsman whose highly decorative, colourful landscapes celebrate the picturesque in nature. Among his favourite subjects were huge, leafy elm trees, rustic houses, hay carts and Montreal’s port; his rare human subjects typically appeared dwarfed by nature. Fortin was technically inventive, experimenting with methods of watercolour, oil painting and mixed media.
Fortin studied in Montreal under Ludger Larose and Edmond Dyonnet, and under Edward J. Timmons at the Art Institute of Chicago. There, he discovered the works of Jean-François Millet, Claude Monet and Mary Cassat, as well as those of the British painters Frank Brangwyn and Sir Alfred East. Returning to Montreal in 1914, Fortin worked at odd jobs and painted in his spare time. It was after a short trip to England and France in 1920 that he began to work seriously as a painter and to show his work, which included scenes of the island of Montreal, largely rural at the time, and of his birthplace Sainte-Rose, north of the island. In the summers, he traveled to Quebec City, the Île d’Orléans and Charlevoix, drawing and painting houses and rural scenes. Between 1923 and 1926, he painted many of his celebrated tree scenes. In 1928, critic Jean Chauvin dedicated a chapter of Ateliers, his book on Canadian artists, to Fortin, comparing him to “a magician conjuring up, out of the earth, out of his palette, giant trees, extravagant skies, a whole enchanted nature…”
Fortin returned to France for a year between 1934 and 1935, traveling around the country, drawing and painting. Upon his return to Canada, he moved to Sainte-Rose and started experimenting with the application of pure colours onto a black surface, achieving luminous, brilliant colour. Later, he used a similar approach with a grey surface. Starting in the late 1930s, Fortin made painting trips to the Gaspé region, where he met Alexandre Bercovitch. Around this time, he experimented in watercolour highlighted with black pencil or pastel, and in the 1950s, painted in casein.
Beginning in 1955, Fortin suffered declining health and increasingly miserable living conditions. He lost both legs to diabetes and stopped painting for seven years, eventually resuming work from a wheelchair. In 1967, he moved to a sanatorium in Macamic, in the Abitibi region of Quebec. By the time he died at the age of 82, he had produced an estimated 8000 to 10 000 works, many of which were lost over the years to fire or unscrupulous dealers.
Fortin’s lush rendering of trees is evident in Landscape, Ahuntsic (c.1930). The engraving The Cart in the Village (c.1930) features his trademark hay cart. Landscape, Hochelaga (c.1931) is one of a series of paintings done from his Montreal apartment. It shows the complex composition and contrasting colours that are typical of his cityscapes.
Fortin participated in numerous international exhibitions and held solo exhibitions at the Musée du Québec (1944), in Almelo, Netherlands (1948), Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (1954), and at the National Gallery of Canada (1963). He won the Jessie Dow prize from the Art Association of Montreal (1938), a bronze medal at the New York World’s Fair (1939), and was an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
Born in Ste-Rose, north of Montreal, he studied art evenings while he made a living. His father was a judge and did not approve of his son studying art because he thought it was not a practical way of making a living. He attended the Ecole du Plateau where he studied under Ludger Larose (1906-1908); at the Council of Arts & Manufactures, Mtl., under Edmond Dyonnet. Around 1908 he became employed by the post office department in Montreal and from there travelled west to Edmonton where he worked as a bank clerk and at several other jobs until he saved enough money to go to the United States for study at the Art Institute of Chicago with Edward J. Timmons (c. 1910); he also studied in NYC and Boston. He returned to Montreal in 1914. He painted landscapes at Ste-Rose as well as at Piedmont and Montreal Harbour. He made a short trip to France and England (1920-22) which influenced his style. He exhibited in Chicago (1929) and at Pretoria, S.A. (1930). In 1935 he was again in Europe where he painted in southern France and northern Italy. On his return to Canada he exhibited at the T. Eaton Co., Mtl. During one of his exhibits in 1937, St. George Burgoyne of The Gazette noted, “. . . Mr. Fortin is courageous; individual and an experimenter and many of the works on view suggest that the treatment might conceivably be more effective if employed on big scale decorations, rather than on pictures for the embellishment of the average room . . . .” Burgoyne in a 1938 review praised his resourcefulness in finding new pictorial angles particularly in his water colours and also how effective were his smaller harbour scenes. It was during this year that Fortin’s work was chosen for exhibit at the Tate Gallery, London, in “A Century of Canadian Art.” One was the oil, Landscape: At Hochelaga (c. 1931), owned by Hon. Vincent & Mrs. Massey, (now NGC), the other, Landscape, Hochelaga (w/c 1929 – NGC), an important recognition of Fortin’s work during that period. One of his finest is his Landscape, Ahuntsic (c. 1930) – NGC, another is L’Orme à Pont-Viau (c. 1935) – Mus. du Qué. He received further recognition at the MMFA Spring Exhibition of 1938 for his water colour landscape, Les Eboulements (1938) which won the Jessie Dow Prize. He won a bronze medal at the N.Y. World’s Fair (1939). In 1945 he took part in the show, “Canadian Art in Brazil” when Marcelle-Louise Proux, writing in the Planalto of Sao Paulo, noted, “He is a brilliant colourist who looks on painting as a ‘plastic poetry’.” Fortin exhibited in Almelo, Holland (1948); MMFA, Mtl. (1954). By this time he had made trips to the Gaspé, Baie-Saint-Paul, and Lac St-Jean regions. In 1955 Fortin became ill and stopped painting for seven years. His legs had to be amputated. He began his long road to recovery and painted from his wheelchair. Writing on his 1963 retrospective show at the Mount Royal Art Centre, Raymond Heard reflected, “A gentle and nostalgic world is reflected in Mr. Fortin’s canvases. It is a world of curdled clouds and patchwork fields in which anonymous rustics labor in the shadow of lonely, wind-tossed elms. When he turns his eye to the city, Mr. Fortin sees rows of quaint Old World dwellings in Quebec, or broad views of Montreal in the days before the urban sprawl scrambled much of the beauty into an untidy blur of smoke and concrete.” In 1963 a retrospective show of Fortin’s work was held at the NGC and in the exhibition catalogue, Jean-René Ostiguy noted, “After his trip to Europe, when his style came close to resembling that of the Group of Seven, he succeeded in preserving a quality of expression belonging to the people, a kind of crudeness which is regarded by some as violent but which really resulted from his brusque execution of his work . . . . Fortin oscillated between decorative imagery and Fauvism. When he was at his best he mingled the two . . . .” His solo shows include: T. Eaton Co. Gal., Mtl. (1935-); La Galerie L’Art Français, Mtl. (1942-57); Musée du Qué. (1944); C.J. Van Der A.A., Almelo, The Netherlands (1948); MMFA (1954); Queen Elizabeth Hotel, Mtl. (1958); NGC, Ott. (touring, 1963-64); Centre culturel de Verdun, Que. (1968). Fortin, an internationally-renowned artist, finally succumbed to his diabetic condition, sight and legs gone, neglected by politicians of the day in his own province who had the power to help him, voiced only concerns, and did little. He died at the age of 72, in Macamic Sanatorium, Quebec, where a concerned friend three years earlier had taken him. Affiliations: ARCA (1942-55). He is represented in the following collections: NGC, Ott.; MMFA, Mtl.; Musée du Qué.; Séminaire de Joliette, Que.; Collège Grasset, Mtl.; MAC, Mtl.; AEAC, Kingston and elsewhere. During his lifetime he painted an estimated 6,000 paintings, water colours and prints. A fire destroyed 2,000 more in his Ste-Rose home.
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