Fall 2016 - 4th Session Live auction
Lot # 255
Frederick Horsman Varley
ARCA G7 OSA 1881 - 1969 Canadian
oil on canvas circa 1943
signed and on verso inscribed with the Varley Inventory #564 and stamped twice with the Varley Inventory stamp
22 x 28 in 55.9 x 71.1cm
Acquired directly from the Artist by Dr. H. Thompson
By descent to Shelagh Thompson
By descent to a Private Collection, Vancouver
Sold sale of Fine Canadian Art, Heffel Fine Art Auction House, November 18, 1999, lot 42, cover lot
Peter and Joanne Brown Collection, Vancouver
Arthur Lismer et al., F.H. Varley: Paintings, 1915 - 1954, Art Gallery of Toronto, 1954, reproduced, unpaginated, and listed page 28
Christopher Varley, F.H. Varley, 1881 - 1959, 1979, reproduced page 90
Christopher Varley, F.H. Varley: A Centennial Exhibition, Edmonton Art Gallery, 1981, reproduced page 156
Walt Whitman, “Song of Myself,” Leaves of Grass, in The Complete Poems of Walt Whitman, 2006, page 46
Art Gallery of Toronto, F.H. Varley: Paintings, 1915 - 1954, October - November 1954, traveling to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and a western tour, 1954 - 1955, catalogue #28
Frederick Varley is well-known for his landscapes, for his founding role as a member of the Group of Seven, for his work as an official war artist and—thanks to recent scholarship that explores his portraits—as a remarkable figurative painter. His depictions of women in particular, often set against glowing backdrops and painted in jewel tones, are works of unique complexity and unconventional beauty. In many of these works, the backdrops themselves are as compelling as the figures. Essays in colour, mood and emotion, Varley’s portrait settings are spare and simple, rarely giving us much more than a curtain or a corner wall for reference, but are filled with nuanced, rich colour.
These settings evolved over a 20-year period, becoming more complex and interesting with each subsequent work. They expand on the character of each of Varley’s sitters, telling us more of their story, and they accentuate the sitter’s physical attributes and comment on Varley’s relationship with each of them. Varley’s settings are almost allegorical, wherein the artist’s choice of colour, thickness of paint application and methods of mark-making by way of brushwork add to the content of the work. These colour essays are an extension of Varley’s work in landscape, and in works such as Ottawa River, we find a vibrancy in his treatment of colour that has no parallel in Canadian art.
If we look back to his portraits, we can chart these essays over time, through works such as Mrs. E., painted in 1920 to 1921 (in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario), which shows us the beginnings of Varley’s glowing backgrounds. By 1924 and 1925, as in his portrait of Alice Massey (in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada), glowing, stuccoed colour begins to show distance and depth and take on atmospheric qualities through subtle blends within one hue, as well as through more overt changes of colour. By 1930, with iconic works such as Vera (in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada), we see Varley master certain hues—shades of green, for instance—that while perhaps unconventional colour choices, present a masterful, almost surreal effect. In the 1940s, we see glowing, sparkling blends of colour and light in Varley’s portrait backgrounds that are as compelling and mesmerizing as the subjects themselves.
In Ottawa River, Varley has continued on with his eloquent colour essays, this time with a theme of a vast expanse of golden, reflective sun-touched water in a work that reaches a level of the highest dissertation. Here, we have both portrait and landscape caught together in one incisive treatise on golden colour. Varley himself sits on the riverbank, his paintbox resting on his lap, brush in hand, looking towards an island or distant shore that floats in a sea of opalescent yellow. A companion sits to his left, lower in the landscape, a bit behind him and with their back to us. Perhaps this is Erica Leach, one of Varley’s models, whose dark hair and tall stature match the figure. This second figure is quiet, mesmerized by the golden glow, made small by the sheer beauty of the light. Varley by contrast is engaged and alert, focused on the task of capturing all the unending beauty that is laid out before him in what seems, to us, an impossibly tiny canvas set on his knees.
The words of poet Walt Whitman come to mind: “I believe a leaf of grass is no less than the journey-work of the stars.” To imagine oneself in such a setting is utterly humbling. We cannot see each blade of Whitman’s grass, or in the case of Ottawa River, the detail of each mossy rock or bit of cloud or passage of water, but they are there, combined into one glowing, golden scene, a “journey-work of the stars.” Despite Varley’s diminutive size in this work, it is easy to see Ottawa River as a self-portrait. Varley has painted himself as a small figure in a vast and overwhelmingly beautiful setting, showing himself engaged in his life’s work, attempting to capture the full, complete and entire essence of his subject.
This work is #564 in the Varley Inventory listing.
Estimate: $150,000 ~ $250,000 CAD
Sold For: $188,800.00 CAD (including buyer's premium)