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A strong foundation in art

Wild Ducks by J.E.H. MacDonald, a founding member of the Group of Seven, is currently on display at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.

This article is published in the Aug. 12 edition of the Gazette. Pick up your copy of the newspaper at one of the many locations around campus.

By Meredith Dault, Senior Communications Officer

In Wild Ducks, a 1917 painting by Canadian artist J.E.H MacDonald, a founding member of the Group of Seven, a lone duck hunter is depicted against a dark and churning sky at the end of what appears to be an autumn day. The picture is striking in its hand-carved frame. Bold and dramatic, it is an image that is also touched with just a little melancholy.

But the mood was likely far more jovial when the members of the Queen’s University Art Foundation first purchased the substantial painting on the university’s behalf in the early 1940s. That’s when a group of alumni and friends, united by the belief that art is fundamental to education, banded together with a goal of starting an art collection at Queen’s. The paintings they managed to amass over the course of a five-year period (1940-1944) are currently on-view at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre as part of an exhibition called Mind, Heart and Spirit: The Queen’s University Art Foundation.

“Their real drive was to get Canadian artworks before they were no longer available,” says Alicia Boutilier, Curator of Canadian Historical Art at the art centre, explaining that they saw important paintings disappearing from the market while other universities built their own art collections. “They wanted to establish a history of Canadian art as they saw it, and especially wanted work by artists like Tom Thomson.”

Led by Lorne Pierce (Arts 1913), then serving as the editor of Ryerson Press and well connected to the Canadian art world, the group managed to make four small oil sketches by Thomson, now considered one of the country’s most influential painters, their first purchase in 1941.

“At the time his paintings were becoming difficult to obtain,” says Ms. Boutilier, of the four paintings. “Prices were going up.”

Spring, Algonguin Park, by Tom Thomson.

Rendered in 1915 and 1916, the paintings depict a number of different landscapes, including views of Algonquin Park, one of Thomson’s favourite subjects. The foundation’s many other acquisitions include works by Group of Seven members Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson, as well as by Paul Kane, J.W. Beatty, Mary Bell Eastlake and other key Canadian historical artists.

The group, who made their purchases with help from a number of supporters making regular contributions to the cause, would present the newly-acquired art works to the university community at spring convocation during their active period.

“That collection really ended up being the nucleus of what we now have at the Agnes, even though the gallery didn’t open until 1957,” says Ms. Boutilier. “It really got the ball rolling, because then people starting becoming more aware of the collection, and that encouraged others to donate.”

By 1944, she explains, there was enough momentum that the group decided that their work was done.

Musing on their accomplishments at that spring’s convocation, then-principal Robert C. Wallace declared “the ministrations of art are for the mind, the heart and the spirit. They contribute to a unified life…”
Visiting the collection today, it is hard to disagree.

Mind, Heart and Spirit: The Queen’s University Art Collection continues until Nov. 9, at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre.