A Canadian by birth, William Blair Bruce’s career took him from a small city in southern Ontario to France, where, as a founder of the famous artists’ colony in Giverny, he became one of the first North Americans to adopt the strategies of impressionism.
Bruce was later associated with the art life of Sweden, exhibiting his work in Stockholm and eventually settling on the island of Gotland, in the Baltic Sea. A prolific painter, his oeuvre includes figural and mythological subjects, as well as landscapes and seascapes––his ability to evoke transient effects inspiring one critic to deem him “the open-air painter par excellence, an enthusiastic lover of Nature in all her moods.” 1
Born in Hamilton, Ontario, on October 8, 1859, Bruce was the son of William Bruce, a Scottish-born writing master, and his wife, Janet Blair. As a young man, he studied law at Hamilton Collegiate Institute. He received his earliest artistic training from his father, an amateur painter, calligrapher and photographer, and from two local painters, John Herbert Caddy and Henry Martin. During 1877, he attended classes at the local Mechanics Institute (Hamilton Art School) while working as a draftsman and clerk for the Hamilton Writing Institute. From 1878 to 1880, Bruce was employed as a draftsman for a Hamilton architect, but his professional aspirations lay elsewhere: in May of 1881, he displayed three works at the annual exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, an experience that encouraged him in his decision to become a painter.
Like so many artists of his generation, Bruce realized that his objectives could only be furthered by study in Paris––the center of the nineteenth century art world. Upon receiving financial support from several members of his family, he arrived in France in the summer of 1881. In the autumn he enrolled at the Académie Julian, where he honed his skills as an academic figure painter under the tutelage of Tony Robert-Fleury and William Bouguereau and fraternized with a number of American art students, including the painters Theodore Robinson and Willard Metcalf.
Between 1881 and 1885, Bruce divided his time between Paris and the villages of Barbizon and Grèz-sur-Loing, where he painted views of rural scenery in the open air, emulating the naturalism of French painters such as Jules Bastien-Lepage. One such work, Une lisière de la forêt (present location unknown), was featured in the 1882 Salon, thus boosting the artist’s confidence in succeeding in the highly competitive international arena. During this period, Bruce also painted another ambitious canvas with Barbizon overtones––Temps passé (ca. 1883-84; Owens Art Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick)––which was exhibited in the 1884 Salon to critical acclaim. However, the physical and mental energy involved in creating this painting, including the costs expended on art supplies, a studio, and models, had an effect on Bruce; feeling overworked and concerned about his finances, he decided to return to Hamilton to recuperate and regain his peace of mind, with the intention of exhibiting his French work in Canada and England. Unfortunately, contemporary art audiences were deprived of seeing the approximately 200 paintings he created during his first sojourn in France, for they were lost when the ship carrying them sank off the Ile d’Anticosti, in the Gulf of St. Lawrence, on November 8, 1885.
Notwithstanding this setback, Bruce returned to France towards the end of 1886, his energy and spirit renewed. A pivotal moment in his artistic evolution occurred in the spring of 1887, when he and a group of fellow artists, among them Robinson and Metcalf, decided to spent the season painting outdoors in Giverny, a small Normandy village that was also home to Claude Monet. Inspired by the efforts of his cohorts––and no doubt by the presence of Monet––Bruce turned his attention to intimate landscapes executed with the bright hues and lively brushwork of impressionism, producing sparkling oils such as Landscape with Red Flowers (1887, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto), considered an icon of Canadian impressionist painting and affirmation of Bruce’s role as a pioneer of North American impressionism. During these years, Bruce also wrote a number of letters to his family; these missives provide important details relative to the founding and early history of the Giverny art colony. 2
In December of 1888, Bruce married Caroline Benedicks, an affluent Swedish sculptor who was also active in the art circles of Paris. In the ensuing years, the couple traveled and painted in France and Italy and made one visit to Hamilton (1895), where Bruce’s accomplishments were avidly prompted in the local press. During these years, the artist explored a variety of motifs, ranging from figural work to mythological subjects, portraits and marines. His stylistic approach became equally diverse, as he moved easily between academic realism, impressionism and a Whistler-inspired tonalism.
Bruce and his wife typically spent their summers in Gotland where, in 1899, they built a house, called Brucebo, near the town of Visby. After leading a peripatetic lifestyle for so long, Bruce enjoyed his life at Brucebo, devoting much of his time to gardening and painting twilight views of the sea. Due in part to his expatriate existence, he never felt the need to establish a relationship with dealers in New York, Toronto and Montreal––which meant that his work rarely came up on the art market. However, he was very well known in Europe, exhibiting at the Paris Salon on 15 occasions between 1882 and 1906. His paintings were also shown at the Royal Academy of Arts in London and in Munich and elsewhere in Europe. In 1897, he had a one-man show in Stockholm, where art critics and “even royalty” were prompted to “heap blushing honours thick upon him.” 3
William Blair Bruce’s career was cut short by his premature death at age 47. In acknowledgment of his accomplishments, exhibitions of his work were held at the Georges Petit Galeries in Paris and at the Konstakadenien in Stockholm (both 1907) and in Visby, Sweden (1908). As noted by a Canadian commentator in 1919, these exhibitions were intended as “honors to his genius . . . That Blair Bruce . . . [is] not more well known throughout Canada is simply due to the lack of opportunity to view [his] paintings.” 4 Indeed, even though the artist’s wife donated 33 paintings to the City of Hamilton in 1914––a body of work that subsequently formed the core collection of the Art Gallery of Hamilton––Bruce remained little known in his homeland, for the majority of his paintings (about 5000 pieces) became part of the Brucebo Foundation and the Gotland Museum in Visby. In the 1980s, about 100 works, including some of his finest impressionist paintings, were repatriated to Canada and are now housed in the Robert McLaughlin Gallery in Oshawa, Ontario. Bruce is also represented at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and in other Canadian collections.
Described by one of his contemporaries as a “man of talent and a bold and independent seeker after truth in art,”5 Bruce has become much better known in the United States and Canada due to recent scholarship on impressionism and studies relative to the tradition of North American artists working in international art colonies such as Giverny.6 For example, Bruce was represented in the exhibition Visions of Light and Air: Canadian Impressionism, 1870-1915, held at the Americas Society in New York in 1995, and one of the finest canvases from his Giverny period, Rain in Giverny (Spanierman Gallery, LLC), was accorded a special hanging spot in Impressionist Giverny: A Colony of Artists, an exhibition held at the Musée d’art americain in Giverny in 2007.7 Caroline Benedicks also paid homage to her husband’s memory by establishing the Brucebo Foundation, which provides Canadian artists with the opportunity to undertake study and research abroad.
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1. G. B., “Studio-Talk,” International Studio (March 1908): 151.
2. See Joan Murray, ed., Letters Home, 1859-1906 (Moonbeam, Ont.: Penumbra Press, 1982).
3. “Studio and Gallery – Mr. W. Blair Bruce . . . ,” Saturday Night (Toronto), (December 4, 1897): 15.
4. Winnipeg Tribune, December 9, 1919.
5. “A Canadian Artist Abroad,” Evening Times (Hamilton, Ont.), April 14, 1888, p. 3.
6. See, for example, Carol Lowrey, Visions of Light and Air: Canadian Impressionism, 1885-1920, exh. cat. (New York: Americas Society, 1995) and William H. Gerdts, Monet’s Giverny: An Impressionist Colony (New York: Abbeville Press, 1993).
7. See Katherine M. Bourguignon, ed., Impressionist Giverny: A Colony of Artists, 1885-1915, exh. cat. (Chicago; Terra Foundation for American Art, 2007).