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Still-life with Fruit

Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté
Still-life with Fruit, c. 1902
oil on canvas
27.3 x 40.4 cm
Purchased 1998

After an apprenticeship as a church decorator in Quebec, Suzor-Coté left for Paris in 1891 to continue his training. He entered the studio of Léon Bonnat at the École des beaux-arts and during the winter of 1893–94 studied with Fernand Cormon. After having exhibited for the first time with the Société des Artistes Français, almost a rite of passage for debutant artists, he returned to Canada in the spring of 1894. Over the next decade he travelled between Arthabaska – his hometown in the Eastern Townships – Montreal, and Paris, working in Paris from November 1897 to June 1901, January 1902 to June 1903, January 1904 to July 1907, and April 1911 to January 1912. The dates of Suzor-Coté’s sojourns in Paris are of interest here as the inscription on this undated still-life identifies it as having been painted in that city.

While principally a figure and landscape painter, Suzor-Coté painted a number of still-lifes during the first fifteen years of his career. One of the earliest (1892; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) depicts a closed fan with oranges and a wine glass arranged on a flat surface. The objects evoke many aspects of the good life a young Canadian artist might wish to lead in Paris: food, drink, theatre, illicit romance. The still-lifes from the middle of the decade are more finished, two of 1895 almost trompe-l’oeil, presaging his still-lifes of hanging game realized back home in 1897. During the mid-nineties he painted a number of floral studies, one of lilies with a music score, one of white roses, and one depicting a vase of yellow and white daisies (1897; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts).

More fluid in treatment and subtle in colouring are two still-lifes dated 1902. Still-Life with Onions (NGC) is a virtuoso performance in its depiction of textures and of the reflections on a copper pot and jug with unpeeled onions and garlic arranged on a rough, flat surface. In his humble portrayal of objects from everyday life the artist is clearly paying homage to the Dutch painters of the 17th century. In a related work, Still-life with Apples and Chestnuts (private collection), the artist contrasts the polished surface of a copper brazier, the green glaze of a jug, and the roasted chestnut shells arranged with three apples on an identical ledge.

Stylistically, Still-life with Fruit bears certain similarities to the 1902 paintings and thus suggests a common date. Oranges, apples, and lemons are arranged on what appears to be a silver tray, while in the foreground a lemon casts its reflection on the light-coloured surface. Some ill-defined forms emerge from the indistinct background. Absent are the studio props of the other two works, with all their academic implications. Here the artist merely focuses on the colour and textures of the objects bathed in a soft light. The immediacy of the study is enhanced by the tight framing and absence of a ledge. The objects exist in their own space, glowing with colour. Beautifully and sensuously painted, this work marks a new departure in Suzor-Coté’s oeuvre. Leaving behind the historical and academic formulae, he delights in form, texture, colour, and light as he would in the superb Winter Landscape of 1909 (NGC).