She had been taught to search for a truth and beauty which lies behind
appearance, a deeper truth which is to be found through a knowledge of structure. From classical times, art teachers have often dictated that “The shape of the human body is the most complicated and subtle thing in the whole world.....The student who has learned to draw the nude can draw anything.” (Even in her nineties, my mother used to astonish medical professionals with her understanding of anatomy.) In figure study she had been taught to construct her subjects by first studying their structure, that is, by reading the body of bone and sinew under its skin. A quest for the fundamentals both of design and the deepest essence of her subject meant for her a return to studying the nude. In the thirties, at this early, important stage in her career, my mother would have agreed wit Matisse: “[What ]I am after above all is expression. What interests me most is neither still life nor landscape, but the human figure. It is that which best permits me to express my almost religious awe towards life.”
During the thirties, Marie’s pictures became astonishing. Frequently as large as (or larger than) life, these portraits and figure studies in oil were suffused with light; they reflected a radiant sense of possibility and promise. Throughout this period, her nudes revealed eros, harmony, energy and ecstasy. She examined woman in many aspects: closed and remote or open and daring. In keeping with her classical upbringing, these are women larger than life, women as goddesses. This was work that obeyed Renoir's challenge: “Paint with joy, with the same joy with which you make love.”
During the war years, and even into the sixties, censorship became a problem in Toronto. Moreover, portraits in general were banned from the exhibitions, largely because too many paintings of pompous dignitaries had been submitted. Suddenly Marie’s exhibition career came to a halt. Crippled by arthritis, shut off from Toronto and her friends, my mother faced the challenges of raising two daughters with very little money.
In spite of all her troubles, my mother maintained her spirit and determination. She posed without clothes in her frigid unheated studio to paint her masterpiece, “I Ascend From the Night”. She, too, drew always. Sketches of the poses made by birds and squirrels, glimpsed through the windows, or of the swaying pines which hovered over the house, lay on the tables throughout the house. Even shopping lists were blended with studies of the curving line of an antique chair back, or a child's hands. Paints were always
at the ready--just in case. In 1957 she painted in oil one further defiantly whimsical, but symbolic nude. This was ‘Caprice’ (35" X 25")--a blithe figure in warmest flesh tones, stepping lightly through a forest world of newly fallen snow. Beauty created in a cold climate.
Just as my father was finding the truest expression of himself in his Toronto drawing, my mother was returning to exploring portraits, the genre which always attracted her most. My sister and I were her most available, if often reluctant sitters. However, she also accepted commissions, discovering, as most portrait artists do, how difficult it can be to please a subject. In her portraiture my mother strove to evoke a
balance of character and resemblance while also creating a picture which rested on its own merit. She tried to reveal character through pose and clothing, as well as through the expressive qualities of face. Whenever possible, her preference was to integrate her subject into nature. The stalking of personality she found to be very exciting, but it was also quite tense, she said.
Later, in the sixties, my parents at last were able to afford a yearly sketching trip to Britain or Europe, expeditions which opened up another world to them. For both of them, travel was the heady opportunity to study superb collections of art in Paris and London. In London, they were particularly affected by Turner's treatment of light and the diaphanous grace of the Elgin marbles. In Paris they feasted on the overwhelming wealth of classical works, but it was the Impressionists that had a lasting effect on their own art after this trip. However, for all their delight in their explorations, my parents missed
Canada's wide open spaces when they went abroad. Always, my father, especially, rejoiced in returning to the landscape of home.At the same time they were exploring overseas, my parents discovered an exotic world much closer to home. Over the next few years, they searched out circuses for their subjects. My mother loved the movement, light, costumes and big tents. The paintings she created at this time became her way of preserving a threatened form of performance, just as my father's theater pictures had been for him.
Using pastels she caught a madder- colored big top billowing in the wind, but turned to oils for her other works, evoking a sideshow barker and his girls, gorgeously costumed performers spilling out of a van, elephants sheltering from sun under a slender tree (or swaying majestically before the tent), twilight with the crowds clustered, waiting to go in, and also the dustily-lit interior with its aerial artists. These circus pictures were for her the culmination of her career.
To view the Ken Phillips webpage, please click here.
To view the Marie Cecelia Guard webpage, please click here.
To view Peri McQuay's website, please click here.