“All artists are influenced by others for the technique, the craft. But the true artist retains his ivory tower, which is impenetrable. The ivory tower is the domain of inspiration, it is there that the artist will seek his ideas on art. “
(Marc-Aurèle Fortin, 1969)
If there is something akin to royalty in the art world of Quebec, one painter stands out among the few historically significant artists of our country, namely, Marc-Aurèle Fortin.
Indeed, as the Impressionists marked the art of the late nineteenth century in Europe and Picasso, Braque and Matisse marked the first part of the twentieth, Quebec owes a major artistic debt to this incredible artist. His influence has touched the work of most Quebec artists, from the 1930s to today.
His pictorial approach left an indelible mark both for the non-figurative painters who would revolutionize our art and culture in the middle of the last century as for the figurative painters who are still trying to translate the visual reality of Quebec. His artistic courage allowed painting to be seen as more than a mere means of representing reality, and the very poetry of his soul granted an inestimable license to anyone who could see beyond their own eyes.
Born in Sainte-Rose in the northern part of Île Jésus (now Laval) in 1888, the prolific Marc-Aurèle Fortin was a painter, watercolourist, engraver and draftsman, and his highly decorative and colorful landscapes highlight the picturesque aspects of nature.
His work is easily recognizable by his favorite subjects: leafy elm trees, rustic houses, hay carts and the Port of Montreal. With little regard for human representation, his subjects always seem subordinate to nature.
From the early part of the twentieth century, Fortin studied with two of Quebec’s leading artists, Ludger Larose and Edmond Dyonnet, but soon went to the Art Institute of Chicago to perfect his art. Upon his return in 1912, Fortin worked to develop a landscape style that stood out from what was done elsewhere. Beginning in 1918, he became interested in watercolor and, soon, the “holed” trees that are, for many, emblematic of his work, appear. Unhappy with his watercolor technique, he returned to oil and, as of the late 1920s, he was found exhibiting in the United States and South Africa. A few years later, he exhibited in France and Italy where he perfected his art until 1935.
He returns to Quebec that year and his work is totally transformed. From a somewhat sentimental painter, he becomes much more cerebral and then begins the pure plastic exploration for which he is now recognized.
It is from the mid-1930s that he develops what he calls “the dark manner” which consists essentially of the application of pure colors on black backgrounds so as to “intensify the relationship between the shadow and the light» as he says himself. He also uses gray backgrounds “to describe the warm atmosphere of Quebec skies”. This unorthodox approach will have an influence on the work of many artists who would revolutionize art fifteen years later.
Fortin returns to watercolor in the late 1930s accentuating the evanescent shades of this medium with black pencil lines. At the same time, he also began to print, which would become for a time, one of his favorite mediums. He exhibited permanently, from 1940, at the gallery French Art – today the Galerie Valentin – in Montreal.
At the beginning of the 1950s, he turned to casein – a milk-based tempera – with which he painted powerful works, attaining perfection as never before achieved by the artist.
Diabetes interrupted the career of the artist from 1955 and a large number of paintings entrusted to his manager would be destroyed without ceremony.
Four years later, he takes again to his brushes but with fairly uninteresting results. He would scribble pencil sketches until 1966, when he completely lost his sight. A friend, René Buisson, installed him in a sanatorium in Macamic in Abitibi, where he died on March 2, 1970, blind and amputated of both legs.
Today, the work of Fortin holds a place more than enviable in the history of art in Quebec and, ultimate consecration, since May 2007, one can admire an important collection of the works of Marc-Aurèle Fortin at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. The Marc-Aurèle Fortin Foundation has donated all of its collection, some one hundred works, to this institution.
An extremely prolific painter, he leaves, according to several historians, a work of nearly 10,000 paintings, prints and drawings found in prestigious and important collections around the world.