Collection Highlight:
William Blair Bruce
Temps Passé

In the foreground, an old woman sits, resting her head on her cane next to a tree stump with new shoots sprouting from around it. In the distance children dance in a circle in a field at the edge of a town.

William Blair Bruce
Temps Passé, 1884
oil on canvas
200.6 x 248.9 cm.
Collection of the Owens Art Gallery

One of the largest works in the Owens Collection, Temps Passé depicts an elderly woman sitting on a rock, lost in thought while in the distance a group of children dance in a circle. Bruce took inspiration for this painting from a passage from the book of Job, “For there is hope of a tree, If it be cut down, that it will sprout again”. A literal reference to this quote can be seen in the tree stump sprouting young shoots on the left side of the painting.

Looking at Temps Passé you may see influences of different artistic styles. The figure of the woman shows Bruce’s academic training with careful use of light and shadow to give the figure shape, while the surrounding landscape is painted in more of an impressionistic approach with loose brushwork and bright colours.

William Blair Bruce (1859 – 1906) was one of the first Canadian Impressionists. Born in Hamilton, ON, he grew up in family that encouraged the arts. When he decided to pursue painting as a career, his mother, grandmother and aunt became his patrons, and at 21 Bruce set off for Paris to study at the Académie Julian. He lived most of his life in Europe, married Carolina Benedicks-Bruce and together they created the artists estate Brucebo, which was later established as a nature reserve.

An old woman sits, resting her head on her cane. Beside her a plant grows and behind her a field is painted in muted pastel colours. An old woman sits in a field resting her head on her cane. Beside her, the faint outline of a child’s head and torso is accentuated with illustrated dashed lines.

While William Blair Bruce was abroad, studying at the Académie Julian, he wrote many letters home to his family, sharing his experiences and also describing the paintings he was working on. When writing about Temps Passé he included a small sketch of an early composition of the painting that included a child standing in front of the old woman.

William Blair Bruce originally painted this young girl standing in front of the old woman, but ultimately decided to paint her out, explaining in letters to his family, “The contrast makes the old peasant woman look even sadder than ever.” Looking closely at Temps Passé, you are able to see the outline of that child.

A detail of a signature on a painting reads “Blair Bruce” in brown capitol letters. Above the same name but larger has been obscured to blend in with the texture of the grass.

The artist originally signed the work in much larger lettering, directly above the visible signature, but changed his signature before completing the work. Despite being obscured with green paint, the lettering is still visible.

A corner of an elaborate gold frame surrounds the blue sky of a painting. Three layers of prominent repeating patterns each use leaf motifs at varying scales.

These types of frame surrounding Temps Passé was a popular style in the 19th century. This frame is made with a simple wooden base covered in plaster moulding. The moulding is made up of repeating patterns and covered in a layer of real gold foil.

William Blair Bruce painted Temps Passé when he was just 24 years old. Like many young artists he had been struggling to make ends meet and wanted to produce a work that would catch the eye of the judges at the Paris Salon — one of the most important international art exhibitions of the time. A friend and fellow artist advised him to get the judge’s attention he should paint a very large canvas. Bruce took the advice and made Temps Passé about seven feet high and ten feet wide.

The ambitious painting was accepted to the Paris Salon. To frame the painting for the exhibition, Bruce needed 550 francs, causing him to write to his family, asking for an advance on his allowance. To his mother and aunt he wrote “If I can’t pay up for my frame and colours I will have my work seized upon the Salon walls, not a very pleasant position for an artist.”

Bruce’s family supported his decision to pursue painting as a career, and his mother, grandmother and aunt became his patrons. Evidently the bill for the frame was paid and the work hung in the prestigious Salon.

A black and white photograph shows women standing near easels painting in a large gallery filled with ornately framed paintings. In the centre of the room, plaster casts of classical Greek statuary are displayed on plinths.

Temps Passé is part of the original Owens collection. Acquired by Mount Allison in 1893, the Collection was comprised of about 300 mainly nineteenth century European and North American paintings and works on paper.

The Owens was built to house the collection that was originally permanently displayed and served as a teaching resource for students of the Mount Allison Ladies’ College, and for the enjoyment of the general public. Students learned to paint by copying the artworks and statuary on display right in the Owens. Several of the paintings in the collection are marked with brushstrokes of paint from students who were trying to match their palettes to these original works.

Students sketching statuary in the main gallery, The Owens Museum of Fine Arts, ca. 1926. Mount Allison University Archives, Phyllis H. Woods fonds, 8544/2

Painted with soft brush strokes, a gallery with red walls displays paintings in gold frames hang around a white statue of a boy on a pedestal.

Stepping back in time to 1923, Barbara Flood Black, then a student, painted the works on display at the Owens. Temps Passé is easily recognizable on the left.

Art classes continued at the Owens until 1965, when the Gairdner Fine Arts building was constructed next door. Today, the Collection has grown to contains about 4000 works of art including paintings, photographs, prints, sculpture and multi-media work by established Canadian and International Artists, but continues to serve as a teaching and learning resource.

Barbara Flood Black, Untitled (Interior, Owens Art Gallery), c. 1923 oil on board, 40.5 x 50.2cm. Gift of Mariner and Barbara Black.

Temps Passé is one of the largest paintings in the Owens collection and its large bespoke frame makes it one of the more challenging works to move around and transport.

When Temps Passé traveled to Bruce’s home town of Hamilton, ON, in 2014 as part of the exhibition Into the Light: The Paintings of William Blair Bruce (1859-1906) organized by the Art Gallery of Hamilton, a special custom crate had to be designed and built.

Owens’ preparator Roxie Ibbitson started planning for the shipment by gathering the dimensions of every doorway Temps Passé would need to go through on its journey. He designed the painting’s protective crate to be adjustable, with custom wedges which could change the angle of the crate safely. This allowed creative engineering allowed Temps Passé to fit through doorways originally thought to be too small. Inside the crate, the painting rested on padded corners and is mounted on aluminum with honeycomb core giving the canvas extra stability.

Pictured is Katie Patterson, former student assistant and summer intern, for scale.

The way artwork is handled, stored, and displayed all affects it’s condition over time, as will the soundness of the artists’ techniques and materials.

Art Conservation involves the technical study, care and restoration of works of art, as well as the practice of preventive conservation. An important part of an Art Conservator’s work are creating condition reports. Based on close examination of the painting and its frame, condition reports document any changes that happen to a painting over time.

Former conservation Interns Grace McLean and Mary Scott helped Owens’ conservator Jane Tisdale with the most recent condition report for Temps Passé. In these images Grace and Mary are using different types of light to help them assess the surface of the painting. Raking light shows cracks in the paint, and Ultra Violet (UV) light causes aged varnishes or repairs to the painting to fluoresce/glow which are normally invisible to the naked eye.