Maurice Galbraith Cullen

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Maurice Galbraith Cullen

The Canadian painter Maurice Galbraith Cullen (1866-1934) was a pioneer of impressionism in Canadian art and is particularly noted for his winter landscapes.

Maurice Cullen was born at St. John's, Newfoundland, and brought up in Montreal. He began his training as a sculptor under Philippe Hébert, and with a legacy from his mother he went to Paris in 1887 for further study at the école des Beaux-Arts. Once he saw the works of Claude Monet, however, he turned to painting and for the next few years sought out the favorite haunts of the French impressionists: Moret, Giverny, and Brittany. He exhibited at the Salon and was elected a member of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Arts.

With an established European reputation, Cullen returned to Montreal in 1895 and began to paint the winter landscapes along the St. Lawrence River in the vicinity of Quebec City and the night scenes of Montreal, for which he is best known. By 1897 he was a regular exhibitor with the Royal Canadian Academy, and he became a full member in 1907. In spite of this, his work was not immediately accepted by a public devoted to 19th-century European art, and he would have starved without the support of a few patrons, like Sir William Van Horne.

In 1900 Cullen managed to finance a second stay in Europe, this time for 2 years, and besides visiting familiar haunts in France with his old friend James Wilson Morrice, he ventured as far as North Africa. Between 1910 and 1912 he painted on the rugged coast of Newfoundland, and one of his larger canvases shows his native town of St. John's.

After World War I, in which Cullen served as a war artist, his reputation in Canada grew steadily. By the time he died in 1934 at his country retreat in Chambly, he was revered not only by the young rebels he had inspired in his lean years but by the wider Canadian public as well.

Unlike his friend Morrice, with whom he sometimes sketched on the Ile d'Orléans below Quebec, Cullen preferred to paint out of doors, even in the coldest weather, in order to capture the effect of sunlight on snow. He was one of the first Canadian artists to recognize the fact that snow shadows reflect the blue of the sky, and he did not hesitate to abandon the gentle haze of the French impressionists for the sharp clarity of the Canadian atmosphere. In his uncompromising honesty of subject and style, he was a true pioneer of the national school of landscape painting.

Further Reading

The authoritative biography of Cullen is by his art dealer in Montreal, William R. Watson, Maurice Cullen (1931). For general background see J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (1966). □