J.W. Morrice

Landscape, North Africa, The Orange Grove verso., c. 1912,

oil on board
9 x 12.5 in

One of only four known double-sided oils.

Art critic Jules Bazin, Montréal
By descent to Jules Bazin’s daughter
Masters Gallery, Calgary
Private Collection, Calgary

James Wilson Morrice: 1865-1924, Museum of Fine Arts, Montréal, 30 Sept to 31 Oct, 1965.
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 12 Nov to 5 Dec, 1965. Cat. no. 101 as North African Landscape / Paysage, Afrique du Nord; with commentary on the "orange orchard" on the reverse.

Bazin, Jules. “Hommage à James Wilson Morrice”. Vie des Arts, Autumn 1965 (no 40), p. 23 (black and white), reproduced as Paysage marocain.

Ethier-Blais, Jean. “James Wilson Morrice”. Vie des Arts, Winter 1973-74 (no 73), cover (detail reproduced in colour,) and on p. 3 (black and white), reproduced as Paysage, Afrique du Nord.

Hooper, Mary McCarthy. Henri Matisse in Morocco: The Winters of 1911-12 and 1912-13. 1981. New York City University, M.A. Thesis, p. 143, reproduced as North African
Landscape (image taken from the 1965 MMFA catalogue).

Landscape North Africa and Orange Grove is one of only four known double-sided Morrice oils. William Scott and Sons Gallery in Montreal, Morrice’s executors, thought enough of the backside of the North Africa work as to not stamp it with the “Studio J.W. Morrice” estate stamp, as they did to the three others.

The style of Landscape North Africa dates it from just before the First World War when Morrice visited North Africa three times within two years. Jules Bazin, an art critic and a previous owner of the double-sided painting, situated the work in Morocco, but writer and critic Jean Ethier-Blais suggested this work is actually Tunisia, probably because it resembles another sketch of the same format long known as Tunis: le cavalier. I then recognized the landscape as a view of Tangier with its distinct bay, the dark green Jewish graveyard, and the paler green Charf Hill beyond.

Morrice spent four full months in Tangier, from mid- February to mid-April 1912, and from the end of December 1912 to the end of February 1913. Both times he stayed at the Grand Hotel Villa de France, where his Parisian acquaintance Henri Matisse was also lodging, and the artists found their friendship grow over shared suppers at the hotel. The winter of 1912 was very rainy until a sudden Spring burst in mid-February at the time Morrice arrived.

Tanger: le cavalier was perhaps painted then. Logically, for Morrice’s first discovery of the south and the “Orient”, his subjects were more “touristy”: the old medina seen from the beach, the beach itself, and a view of the Marshan hill immediately to the west of the medina, an easy walk from the Villa de France.

From rainy Paris the following November, Morrice wrote to his friend Edmund Morris that he was planning to spend the winter in Tangier: “Bright colour is what I want.” Perhaps he had learned that Matisse had just gone back. Many weeks later, Morrice wrote Morris again, this time from Tangier on a rainy New Year’s day. It is likely that Morrice painted our double-sided sketch on this second trip, because December is harvest time for Morocco’s famous oranges, and some trees still wear their Fall colours. The comparison with Tanger: le cavalier also suggests a later date. The paint is applied much more freely and lightly, the pencil marks – found in most sketches of this period – are kept to a minimum. The artist literally draws with his colours, something he learned from Matisse. The bright blue skies are also very Matissian. Morrice, no doubt happy to see his friend, borrowed his vocabulary to convey his joy of basking once again in the bright North African light.

But what exactly did he paint? Morocco changed quickly after 1912, which marked the start of the French Protectorate. A new European city was being built outside the walls of Tangier, and the surrounding hills were covered with villas. The images below give an idea of how the Marshan hill looked before and around the time of the takeover. Morrice’s surviving Moroccan sketchbook, which covers the second stay (Sk. #6, Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) and tells us about his adventures – he finally entered the medina, and resumed his walks up the Marshan hill – does not contain any clue linked to the present sketches.

The orange grove in our painting is quite small, probably a family plot. Did Morrice follow the recommendation of the 1911 Mediterranean Baedeker guide, which suggested a “pleasant ride... to the S.W., inland, through orange groves to the village of Es-Suani, where we strike the Fez Road by which we may return to the Outer Market”, where Morrice’s hotel was conveniently located? The return walk is about two or three kilometers. Today, Es Suani is just another completely urbanized district of Tangier.

If the two long stays in Tangier alongside Matisse did not transform Morrice’s style completely, they certainly opened his eyes to brighter, sunnier colours, which could lift the viewer’s spirits. Perhaps that is why, when he was sent to the Picardy war front in early 1918, he tempered his grave subject matter with the bright, strong blue skies of North Africa.

Lucie Dorais, Ottawa, September 2020, with edits.
For the original, full length essay, please contact
Ohler’s Fine Art Inc.