Maurice Galbraith Cullen

January 1, 1998 by Jennifer Morse


Cullen’s war art includes from top to bottom: Bombing Area, Seaford; Domart, 1918; Cite Ste. Catherine.

Maurice Cullen painted with a gentle and very Canadian love of nature. At first glance it seems as though his WW I scenes of the front in France could have been painted in rural Quebec.

He was born on June 6, 1866, in St. John’s, Nfld. His family moved to Montreal when he was a boy. An inheritance from his mother gave him the means to study at the École des Beaux-Arts in Paris, France. While there he was elected an associate of the Société Nationale des Beaux-Art in the company of artists like Edgard Degas and James Whistler.

Cullen returned to Canada in 1895 and began applying his French-learned impressionism to the Canadian landscape. It was not a move that endeared him to the art buyers of the time and he spent the next 15 years poor, but true to his talent.

When he was 45 years old, Cullen returned to Newfoundland and married a young widow named Barbara Merchant Pilot. The newlyweds and her five young children moved to Montreal and Cullen did his best to provide for his young brood. When war broke out his stepsons joined up and in February 1918—when he was 51 years old—he was commissioned to the honorary rank of captain and joined the likes of Frederick Varley and J.W. Beatty as an official war artist. He was sent overseas with a group of Canadian artists to paint war scenes on the Western Front, and he quickly recognized the destructive force as well as the misery and futility of war.

The dance of light that the impressionists handle so beautifully, and that Cullen came to master, met the front lines in France. Light and battleground combined to create war art of unusual beauty, but never art to glorify war. The symbols of war slide so gently into his compositions that oddly enough the destruction seems secondary to the scene.

Maurice Galbraith Cullen paid his dues and is today accepted as the father of modern Canadian painting. The Group of Seven credit him as a major influence and we now recognize Cullen as our first impressionist. He died at 68 in 1934, a relatively affluent man, but more importantly accepted as the talent he was.

Email the writer at: writer@legionmagazine.com

Email a letter to the editor at: letters@legionmagazine.com

Many of the Canadian War Museum’s ­holdings are ­available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca
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