The Art Association of Montreal, the forerunner of the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, was founded in 1860. Bishop Francis Fulford (1803–68) is considered a key figure in its establishment, but so too were the art lovers and collectors of Montréal who wished to endow the city with a space dedicated to art and culture. An early objective of the Art Association of Montreal was to encourage people to view and appreciate fine art. Montréal at this time was expanding both industrially and demographically, and it was considered the economic capital of Canada.
Architecture and Collections
For its first years and more, the Art Association of Montreal did not have a permanent place to store a collection, so they were not able to acquire works. During that time, the Association held its exhibitions at a range of Montréal venues.
The year 1877 was important for the Association because Montréal businessman and collector Benaiah Gibb not only donated the core of his art collection, which consisted of 72 canvases and four bronzes; he also bequeathed a building site on the northeast corner of Phillips Square in downtown Montréal, as well as the sum of $8000. The cash gift was donated on the condition that a new museum would be constructed on the designated site within three years.
On 26 May 1879, the governor general of Canada, Sir John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, inaugurated the Art Gallery of the Art Association of Montreal. It was the first building in Canada to be constructed specifically for the purpose of housing an art collection. The Art Gallery at Phillips Square was comprised of an exhibition room, another smaller room (known as the Reading Room), which was reserved for graphic works, as well as a lecture hall and spaces intended for an art school.
In 1880, the Art Association of Montreal presented its first annual exhibition of contemporary Canadian art, which was called the Spring Exhibition; the last Spring Exhibition was held in 1965.
The building on Phillips Square was eventually deemed too small for the Association’s needs. It was decided that a new structure would be built on the site of the old Holton House on Sherbrooke Street West. The museum committee selected the architectural design proposed by brothers Edward Maxwell and William Sutherland Maxwell, who had trained in the Beaux-Arts tradition. Work on the building began in the summer of 1910 and finished in the fall of 1912.
In 1917, a decorative arts department was established under the direction of F. Cleveland Morgan, who was the volunteer curator from 1917 until his death in 1962. Morgan added more than seven thousand objects to the Association’s collection in the form of acquisitions, bequests and donations.
In September 1947, the Association for the first time had a professional director, Robert Tyler David a museum administrator and art historian, in contrast to previous director William Brymnerwho was first and foremost an artist and art educator. Two years later, the Art Association of Montreal became known as the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, a moniker that was regarded as more accurately reflecting the nature of the institution.
The Art Association of Montreal School and William Brymner
In 1880 the Art Association of Montreal Council established a series of art classes for advanced students in its newly built art gallery on the corner of Phillips Square and Sainte-Catherine Street. The classes were taught by portrait painter William Raphael, landscape painter Aaron Allan Edson and sculptor François Van Luppen. These classes lasted barely two years before being discontinued, apparently due to financial instability. The Council recommenced classes in October 1883, having hired Robert Harris (1849–1919) as director.
However, in 1883 the Art Association of Montreal fired its school’s early instructors, such as the landscape painter Edson, who were replaced by younger artists including Harris. The objective with these changes was to emulate the Parisian atelier model that emphasized the importance of figure study and establishing a strong foundation that students would then build upon. Harris led the school for three years; on his resignation he recommended that William Brymner take his place.
Artist and teacher William Brymner, who had studied at the Académie Julian in Paris (he arrived in early March 1878), followed the French academic model. Drawing was at the core of the curriculum. Brymner was influenced by French modernism, including Impressionism and Post-Impressionism, and he encouraged his students to find their own individual style. This pedagogy provided his students with the freedom to focus on figurative painting when the National Gallery of Canada was starting to champion landscape painting and the Group of Seven.
Brymner was employed at the Art Association of Montreal from 1886 until 1921, but he was never actually a member. During the 35 years he worked as a teacher and director of the art school he contributed widely to the Association’s activities, for instance by sitting on three of its standing committees – the Industrial and Decorative Art Committee (1887–1901), the Art Gallery Committee (1902–11) and the Hanging Committee (about 1914–21). Brymner was a regular participant in the Art Association of Montreal’s Spring Exhibition from 1883 to 1921, the year that he retired as director of the art school.
Brymner also accepted numerous invitations from the Montréal chapter of the Women’s Art Association of Canada, giving public lectures under its auspices and participating in its annual Studio Day.
By the early 1900s a nude model was available to advanced students five mornings a week at the Art Association of Montreal’s school, and a draped model on two afternoons. However, press notices for the life classes sponsored by the Royal Canadian Academy and held at the Art Association of Montreal in 1904–05 specified that the classes were exclusively open to men, despite the fact that the majority of Brymner’s students were women from anglophone families.
Many of Brymner’s students went on to have successful careers as artists, several of whom,, including Lilias Torrance Newton and Edwin Holgate (1892–1977), were founding members of the short-lived Montreal artists’ collective the Beaver Hall Group. Other students included Mabel May, Mabel Lockerby, Emily Coonan, Prudence Heward and Anne Savage. Torrance Newton and Holgate taught art at the Art Association of Montreal from 1934 to 1936, and then again between 1938 and 1940.
Anne Savage also went on to study at the Association from 1914 to 1918. In 1930, she initiated Saturday morning art classes, and in 1937, Charles F. Martin, director of the Art Assocation of Montreal, invited Savage to organize a children’s program; she chose to adapt Group of Seven member Arthur Lismer’s model that he had introduced as early as 1917 in the children’s art classes he established while principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design in Halifax. Savage gave many lectures at the Art Association of Montreal, including lectures on women artists such as Rosa Bonheur (1822–1899), Mary Cassatt (1844–1926) and Élisabeth Vigée Le Brun (1755–1842) in 1939.