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Street Scene

Miller Brittain
Street Scene, c. 1936
Pastel and charcoal on cream wove paper
76.2 x 107.9 cm
Gift of Evelyn McAndrew, Toronto, 2000
© J. Brittain

At a time when most Canadian artists were under the sway of the Group of Seven, few were able to resist making the landscape their subject matter. Miller Brittain was one of those few. He was also quite exceptional in choosing to depict the people of his own community of Saint John, New Brunswick. His work could display a ready wit, or biting social commentary, or a sympathetic observation of the less privileged, yet his vision was always of an abiding humanity.

In 1930 Brittain left for New York to study at the Art Students League, enrolling in Harry Wickey's class. Wickey, an adherent of the Ashcan School, became a mentor to Brittain during his two years at the League. Brittain accepted Wickey's interest in the city and its working class as appropriate subjects, but stylistically he was captivated by the younger generation of American Realists, including Reginald Marsh, Edward Hopper, and Martin Lewis, who were responding to the varied life of New York City during the Great Depression.

In the years immediately following his return from New York, Brittain did not produce anything that could be described as major work. With little money and few if any clients or students, he concentrated on producing small pencil sketches of the everyday people who would pose for him or whom he observed in the streets and neighbourhoods going about their routine. In 1936 Brittain began making a series of large carbon pencil drawings in the style of the American Realists, depicting local scenes such as the "Little Theatre" in rehearsal, a minister preaching during the Sunday service, the interior of a crowded streetcar, or unemployed longshoremen. These black-and-white drawings immediately brought him to national attention, and several of them were illustrated in Saturday Night and the Canadian Forum.

The pastel Street Scene relates to the series of black-and-white drawings, though it is twice as large and in colour. Brittain's busy little Saint John street is a microcosm of the large bustling streets of New York. In this tableau, Brittain captures many stories simultaneously - a newsboy crying out the latest headlines, a dog running into the path of an oncoming car, a young man in full stride turning to ogle a trio of chattering young women, and another young man being splashed by a passing car. Its scale and compositional complexity far outstrip all of the artist's other known work up to this date. It is unlikely that it was derived from an on-the-spot sketch, nor is there any known preparatory study for it. There is some evidence that the subject was made from a combination of those earlier pencil sketches that Brittain had been drawing soon after his return from New York.

This marvellous pastel may be considered Miller Brittain's first major work. The first record of its existence was in 1970, when it went on public view, apparently for the only time. At that time it was listed as being in the collection of Mrs. J. Firth Brittain, the artist’s mother. Following her death it likely went to her granddaughter, Jennifer Brittain who sold it privately though Galerie Simon Dresdnère in Toronto. The donor, Miss Evelyn McAndrew, purchased the work from Dresdnère at this time. Her generous donation of this early masterpiece by one of our leading artists is now available for all to enjoy.