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Spring, Nova Scotia

By Regina Shi

Arthur Lismer, Spring, Nova Scotia, 1916-1919

 

Spring, Nova Scotia by Arthur Lismer is a luminous depiction of the Canadian landscape, showcasing the artist’s unique ability to capture the essence of place and season through his brush. This painting, nestled in the Faculty Club collection at the University of Toronto, is not merely a visual treat but a narrative woven with the threads of Canadian art history, Lismer’s journey, and the profound relationship between art and nature.

           

Arthur Lismer (1885-1969), a member of the Group of Seven, found a source of endless inspiration in Canada’s rugged landscapes. Born in England, Lismer’s early experiences with nature were formative, setting the stage for a career that would intertwine the fates of an artist and his adopted homeland’s vistas.[1] Spring, Nova Scotia is a vibrant testament to this relationship, painted when Lismer had fully immersed himself in exploring and defining a Canadian aesthetic. The painting is serene and pastoral, reflecting Lismer’s close relationship with the landscape as influenced by his time teaching at the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax. This intimacy with nature is a hallmark of the Group of Seven. Passionately dedicated to plein-air painting, they ventured into Canada’s remote expanses, believing that the spirit of Canada was best captured through direct engagement with its landscapes.[2] While the Group is renowned for depicting Canada’s rugged and isolated terrains, showcasing the untamed spirit of the North, Lismer’s work here diverges from this mission. Spring, Nova Scotia paints a different picture—one of domesticity and gentle beauty—offering a softer, more nurturing view of the country’s landscape. This contrast underscores the Group’s diverse yet unified vision in capturing the essence of Canada’s vastness.

           

The painting reveals Lismer’s signature style, characterized by dynamic brushwork and bold colour. The scene captures the transient beauty of spring in Nova Scotia, where the melting snow unveils the first signs of verdant life beneath, and employs a palette that juxtaposes the lingering snow’s cool whites and blues with the warm greens and yellows of emerging foliage, creating a visual symphony that celebrates the season’s renewal. Also, Lismer used dappled brushstrokes that mirror the fleeting qualities of light and atmosphere of Impressionist paintings. 

           

At the same time, his textured application of paint and the rhythmic flow of the lines of the trees echo the Post-Impressionists’ structured strokes. This technique creates a dynamic surface texture, making the scene bustle with the life and growth of spring. That is, coarse brush strokes depict the physical elements of the landscape, creating a tactile quality. Before moving to Canada, Lismer’s formal art training in Antwerp, Belgium, exposed him to the Barbizon and Post-Impressionist movements in painting that would later influence his work.[3] In Spring, Nova Scotia, while this technique reflects Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, it was adapted to capture the ruggedness of the Canadian terrain. This aligns with the Group of Seven’s goal of depicting the country’s landscape in its natural, unadorned beauty.[4]         

           

What’s more, the composition in the painting is balanced yet dynamic, anchored by the central cottage that draws the viewer’s eye as a point of human presence. The surrounding fence and pathways create a visual flow that guides the viewer through the landscape, while the towering trees serve as sentinels of the wild and as frames for the domestic scene. The fluidity of the water in the foreground reflects the literal Canadian landscape.

           

Overall, Lismer’s work, particularly this piece, can be interpreted as a bridge between art and environmental awareness. The Group of Seven’s focus on Canada’s natural landscapes was an artistic endeavour and subtle advocacy for conserving these wild spaces. Spring, Nova Scotia, with its vivid portrayal of the natural world’s delicate beauty, underscores the importance of preserving such landscapes for future generations. Moreover, Lismer’s involvement in art education, notably through his efforts to make art accessible and understandable to children, can be interpreted as reflected in the simplicity and directness of his works. Spring, Nova Scotia exudes a sense of joy and wonder that transcends age and time, embodying Lismer’s belief in art as a universal language that speaks to the innate appreciation of beauty in all of us.[5]

           

The story of Spring, Nova Scotia within the Faculty Club collection brings added cultural and historical depth to the artwork. Barker Fairley, a dedicated proponent of the Group of Seven, donated this piece. It is part of a collection that has experienced the turmoil of being stolen and, fortunately, recovered. This episode reflects the broader, often tumultuous journey encountered by Canadian art throughout the 20th century. Including this painting in the collection emphasizes art's resilience and its role as a bridge between past and present stories, connecting generations. This narrative reminds us of art’s enduring nature and role in our collective memory.

           

In conclusion, Spring, Nova Scotia is more than a painting; it is a confluence of artistic innovation, historical narrative, and environmental homage. Its place in the Faculty Club’s collection at the University of Toronto is a testament to its enduring value, offering viewers a window into the soul of Canadian art and the unbreakable bond between a nation and its natural heritage. Through Lismer’s eyes, we are invited to witness the rebirth of spring in Nova Scotia, a perennial reminder of nature’s resilience and the transformative power of art.

Notes: 

[1] “Lismer, Arthur (1885-1969).” Harvard Square Library. Accessed February 26, 2024. https://www.harvardsquarelibrary.org/biographies/arthur-lismer/

[2] Group of Seven: Exploring Identities Through Landscape. Teach (Toronto). 1454119 Ontario Ltd.DBA Teach Magazine, 2021.

[3] Hodkinson, Ian, and Arthur Lismer. Arthur Lismer’s Drawings for the Humberside Mural: Development of a Grandiose Patriotic Theme. Kleinburg, 

[4] Lismer, Marjorie, and Arthur Lismer. A Border of Beauty: Arthur Lismer’s Pen and Pencil. Toronto: Red Rock, 1977.

[5] Schultz, Margaret. “MORE TO THAT TREE THAN MEETS THE EYE: THE GROUP OF SEVEN, CANADIAN NATIONALISM, AND ENVIRONMENT.” Constellations 9, no.2 (2018). https://doi.org/10.29173/cons29347.

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