Image © Copyright Estate of Jean McEwen / SODRAC (2015)
Jean McEwen, sans titre
Oil on canvas, 1957
24 x 18 inches
Jean Mc Ewen ( 1923-1999 ), born in Montreal, Quebec, of Highland Scottish and French Canadian descent, he studied pharmacy at the University of Montreal where he did well in his studies.1 Poetry and painting interested him for many years and in March of 1951 he held his first one-man show of paintings at Galerie Agnes Lefort. He decided to become a painter a year before his graduation from pharmacy school. In 1951 with the help of his father, a clothing manufacturer, he went to Paris.3 There he took up residence on Rue du Dragon where he associated with American artist Sam Francis, French painter Georges Mathieu and fellow Quebecer Jean-Paul Riopelle. Later, he exhibited with Riopelle and Francis at Gallerie du Dragon. He also painted in Brittany and visited Italy, Holland and Spain where he viewed the works of the Masters.
Jean McEwen returned home in 1953 and held solo shows in Ottawa at Le Foyer de l’Art et du Livre on Sussex Street, and in Montreal at Galerie Agnes Lefort. In his early work he was still concerned with modern objective painting but he then moved into non-objective expression as his experiments progressed especially following his contact with Riopelle, Francis and Mathieu. He was influenced as well by the work of Paul-Emile Borduas as noted by the late Carl Weiselberger, Ottawa art critic, who wrote, “No doubt the young Montreal painter is strongly influenced by the painting of Paul-Emile Borduas, . . . Jean McEwen’s emotions flow into similar patterns of paint. At first sight, merely arbitrary color dashes and splashes, they are obviously well-organized compositons. ‘Conge au Vent’ is a joyous holiday of color in bold, fan-like striding lines which seem to return in a smaller canvas entitled ‘Fanions.’ The titles, naturally, convey very little in the way of external interpretation; the brush movements and rhythms are translations of inward emotions whether they express ‘Spring-time’, the festive outburst of the ‘Fourteenth of July’, or fantasy in orange, green and black called ‘Carquois.’ . . . The strong influence of Borduas’ personality, and his characteristic brush technique is undeniable, although some of Mr. McEwen’s oils, and particularly his charming ink drawings and watercolors show very different color-schemes and rhythms.” In 1956 McEwen became a member of the newly formed Non-figurative Artists’ Association of Montreal.
The same year Weekend Magazine5 published the article “Their Objective Is Non-Objective” in which McEwen and his colleagues of this newly formed group were featured. The article noted that McEwen sold his first painting in 1949 and quoted him as follows, “There are two ways to judge a painting. . . . One is based on criteria and theories of art. The second is based on the sensations we get before a picture. I paint the second way. I am trying to achieve immensity, that’s why I paint white on white. Color disturbs the idea of immensity. I strove to eliminate false romanticism, any ‘cuteness.'” By 1959 his painting was included in Biennial Exhibitions of Canadian Art ( Third, Fourth, Fifth, Sixth and Seventh ).
In 1960 he was elected president of the Non-Figurative Artists’ Association of Montreal. The following year he won first prizes for his paintings at the Province of Quebec Exhibition and the Hadassah Exhibition; received a Canada Council Grant; held his first one-man show of paintings at Gallery Moos, Toronto, when the Toronto Daily Star6 noted, “Most of the pictures a year or so old have a richness of texture that suggests vines: It is as if the walls had suddenly started to grow. More recent pictures, however – like the handsome ‘Red Spring’ – indicate an opening up of the design and a more ambitious spatial exploration. More than anything else, a collection of non-objective paintings like these should have a total ‘presence’ which goes beyond the four sides of any individual canvas and fills the room with the artist’s presence. McEwen achieves this perfectly.”
In 1962 he held two one-man shows; participated in several important group shows outside Canada then the following year made his first appearance in New York City with an exhibition at the Martha Jackson Gallery. Reviewing this show the New York Visitor’s Reporter7 noted, “Here is an artist constantly probing into the mysteries of color, concentrating all his efforts and versatility of color, color which is superbly underlayed, giving his canvases a great luminosity. His blending of tone and texture is masterful . . . McEwen’s surging, vigorous painting remains always his own instrument, always under his authorative control.” Many of his group shows in 1963 took place beyond the borders of Canada and he received two Honorable Mentions, one at Sao Paulo, Brazil, and the other at the Montreal Spring Exhibition.
An important honour came to him in 1964 when he was chosen as part of a relatively small representative group of Canadian painters to show their work in “A Quarter Century of Canadian Painting” organized by the National Gallery of Canada and held at the Tate Gallery, London, England. Eight of his canvases went on view including “Cellule noire” (1959, coll. Mtl. Museum of Fine Arts); “Grand fil plomb” (1961, coll. W.G. McConnell, Mtl.); “Entrelacs rouges” (1961-2, coll. NGC). Also in 1964 he became an Associate of The Royal Canadian Academy. He was awarded a Canada Council Grant in 1965, completed a stained glass mural for Sir George Williams University, Mtl, in 1966 and exhibited jointly with Harold Town in a circulating show organized by the National Gallery of Canada. In 1967 his work was shown in the Canadian Centennial show “Three Hundred Years of Canadian Art” at the National Gallery of Canada, in Montreal at Expo 67, and in Toronto in the Ontario Centennial Art Exhibition. This year he also completed a mural for Place des Arts in Montreal. Time Magazine published an article in 1967 on McEwen and among other things mentioned that he was able to make his living from his painting alone. The article also mentioned that his last one-man show at Galerie Agnes Lefort drew the largest crowds of any opening of the season.
Viewing his 1971 solo show at Galerie Godard Lefort, Terry Kirkman and Judy Heviz related, “With his rich fusing of overlapping, deeply resonant colors, softened and enveloped by a patinating amber varnish, looking into these paintings is like peering through the swirling, mixing vapors of a magical chemical. . . . They contain the same fascination – the longer you look, the more you see. His paint masses seem to float beneath your eyes changing from thick impastos to thin, transparent mists. There are only three or four colors involved in each work, but from their interpenetrating encounter one always wins through to dominate. The result is an accord of greens, reds, violets, or blues, that have the vibrating brilliance or preciousness of forcefully colored enamel. McEwen demonstrates in these paintings that his main interests lie in space, color power and texture, and as we have been led to expect, he handles them in a fascinating, lyrical manner.” McEwen’s solo shows include:
- Galerie Agnes Lefort (1962)
- Moos Gallery, Tor. (1962)
- Martha Jackson Gallery, NYC (1963)
- Tate Gallery, London, Eng. (1963)
- Galerie Anderson Mayer, Paris (1964)
- Galerie Godard-Lefort (1969)
- Galerie Joliet, Que. (1969)
- Galerie Godard-Lefort (1971)
He is represented in the following collections:
- National Gallery of Canada (Ott.)
- Musee du Quebec (Q.City)
- Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Mtl.)
- Art Gallery of Ontario (Tor.)
- Walker Art Center (Indianapolis, U.S.A.)
- Museum of Modern Art (NYC)
- Albright Knox Art Gallery (Buffalo)
- Musee d’art contemporain (Mtl.)
- Sir George Williams University (Mtl.)
- Hart House, Univ. Toronto (Tor.)
- Winnipeg Art Gallery (Man.)
- Edmonton Art Gallery (Alta.)
- Art Gallery of London (Ont.)
- Vancouver Art Gallery (B.C.)
- Queen’s University (Kingston, Ont.)
- Confederation Art Centre (Charlottetown, N.B.)
- The C.I.L. Collection (Mtl.)
Colin S. MacDonald
Courtesy National Gallery of Canada