LOT 216

1871 - 1945

Gnarled Tree
oil on board on canvas, circa 1913 - 1920
on verso stamped Dominion Gallery on a label
13 x 16 in, 33 x 40.6 cm

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000 CAD

Sold for: $265,250

Preview at:

Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Right Honourable Malcolm John MacDonald, PC OM, British High Commissioner to Canada, 1941 - 1946, London, England
By descent to a Private Collection, Ontario
Fine Canadian Art, Heffel Fine Art Auction House, May 17, 2011, lot 147, reproduced front cover
The Collection of Torben V. Kristiansen, Vancouver

Emily Carr was born in Victoria in 1871. She grew up in the city and began her art training there. Unfortunately, in the late nineteenth century, British Columbia did not offer any serious training for artists. Beginning in 1890, Carr trained first in San Francisco, then in England and, most importantly, in France (1910 – 1911). This last period of training was of critical importance, because Carr felt she needed a more robust painting style that would allow her to paint the totem poles and Indigenous life of BC. Although she was uncertain what to expect of her training in France, it radically changed her approach to painting by freeing her to use colour in an expressive rather than a descriptive manner.

Following her return from France in late 1911, Carr organized an exhibition of her French paintings in Vancouver in early 1912. The reaction to these works was not particularly positive but, despite the tepid reception that the French works received, Carr headed to northern BC to paint Indigenous subjects. Carr used heightened colour and looser brush-strokes in her work. This bolder approach to painting allowed her to express herself more forcefully and the works she painted, both on site and later in her studio, are among her most important images. Unfortunately, this new, bolder approach did not receive enormous support from the public. A major exhibition of Carr’s Indigenous subjects in Vancouver in 1913 did not receive the attention Carr had expected. She had hoped that the government of BC would purchase her paintings of Indigenous communities and totem poles, but to her regret this sale did not occur. Unable to support herself in Vancouver, Carr returned to Victoria and began a period of work as a landlady, a potter and, much more rarely, a painter.

Unable to give up her painting completely, Carr produced a number of vividly painted images of the parks and landscape around Victoria during the period 1913 to 1920. Gnarled Tree is one of the works Carr painted during this time. A brightly coloured image, Gnarled Tree reflects brilliantly what Carr had learned during her training in France. Perhaps the most important lesson she had embraced was the idea that colour could be used for expressive purposes rather than being used solely in a descriptive manner.

While Gnarled Tree uses naturalistic colour in part—the main colours of the tree trunk, for example—the painting also brilliantly employs unnaturalistic colours. The field to the left of the gnarled tree is powerfully painted using blue, red, yellow, orange and pink. All these colours suggest sunshine flooding the field and Carr’s vision of the tree within the field.

Equally striking to her use of colour is Carr’s expressive paintwork. This is an image that Carr painted quickly and decisively. The placement of her colours is confident and assured. One of the most notable elements of this work is Carr’s use of flashes of red pigment on the tree itself and on the ground. Did Carr really see this colour in this scene? The answer is almost certainly that she did not, but this use of red propels the eye around the image. The colour has an expressive and directional rather than a descriptive function.

Gnarled Tree is a painting of a tree at the edge of a grassy field, not a particularly exciting sounding subject. With Carr’s use of vividly expressive colour, her quick application of paint, and her tight, effective composition, the painting is an image of remarkable visual excitement. When Gnarled Tree was painted, no other artist in Canada was producing images of such power and skill.

We thank Ian M. Thom, Senior Curator—Historical at the Vancouver Art Gallery from 1988 to 2018, for contributing the above essay.

For the biography on Torben V. Kristiansen in PDF format, please click here.

Estimate: $250,000 - $350,000 CAD

All prices are in Canadian Dollars

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