Katherine Day Adventures in Art and the Influences of Painter, Nicholas Eekman
Part 1 of 3
by Ted Currie
Is it possible the stars are brighter, the northern lights much more colorful, and the moonglow evermore haunting, in this region of rural Ontario? Could it be an Eden by what we know of paradise, as described in literature by the great bards, and shown to us by the legendary artists? Katherine Day knew that what Oro- Medonte possessed was as historic and storied, as it was subtly remarkable in all its natural attributes. The communities were small and quaint, the farms were tended by lovers of the land, and homesteads were welcoming and the harvest was shared in the warm spirit of community. It was, above all, a nurturing place for her art work, and a source of endless possibilities to improve one's life and economy.
Katherine Day possessed unfaltering faith and enduring spirit, and her art work exudes her respect for fantasy and the flame of expectation; being that tomorrow will be more exciting and magic than today. Her modestly appointed, comfortable, fairy-style residence, at Hawthornes, and then later, at “Pax” Cottage, provided the fertile environment Miss Day required to fulfill ambition.
The graphic numbered print, to be published later in this short series of columns, exclusive to the Daytripper, on the life and art work of Oro-Medonte artist, Katherine Day, is one of the most important and revealing biographical pieces of the entire archives collection in this writer's collection. A collection which includes several biographical manuscripts and sketch books, I acquired earlier this year (2016), at an antique shop in the City of Orillia. The locale in Ontario, where Miss Day was born in the year 1889 is west of the City of Orillia. Her father Isaac was a prominent figure with the district school board, employed as regional inspector. The Day house today is listed as one of the City's heritage buildings.
The limited edition engraving, being in this case 53rd out of a hundred printed, undoubtedly by the artist Nicholas Eekman, was most likely the cover of a special limited volume invitation to the 1939 art exhibit in New York, shared between the master artist and his student, Katherine Day. It is signed on the bottom right corner by Eekman and imprinted on the same corner of the engraving with an “NE”. It is apparent that Katherine Day, as co-exhibitor, signed the top right corner of the print. The meaning of the graphic suggests, at least on initial viewing, a somewhat more intimate relationship between Day and Eekman, being two jack-in-the-box characters, crossing necks; Eekman looking left, to admire a rather ominous looking spider, Day, on the right, studying a flower on the opposite side.
It was in the mid to late 1930's when Katherine Day studied with Eekman in Paris, and to a lesser degree from painter Henri Jannot, also an internationally acclaimed artist. Eekman kept company with artists like Picasso, and it might also be assumed, Katherine Day, as his student for several years in Paris, was also exposed to his social circle of artist and writer friends.
Folded up tightly in the archives collection, kept by the Oro-Medonte artist, was a 1939 review published in "The Art News," regarding the impact of the collaborative exhibition, between a master artist, with growing international successes, and his pupil, then in her mid forties, not knowing, at this point, if she could even survive in the highly aggressive and demanding international art profession. Regarding the exhibition, the critique isn't flattering to Katherine Day, and her work, but moreso because of the deep divide between her work, and the profoundly opposite art exhibited by Nicholas Eekman, who had, in the same year, 1939, released his well known depiction of the wounded Don Quixote, published and re-published many times since. The review reads as follows: "A teacher and pupil exhibition at the Grant Studios (presumably in New York), reveals little if any influence of one upon the style of the other. The Dutch artist Nicholas Eekman, whose interest lies chiefly with the peasants of his own land, and deals with them in various phases of their work, is being shown in his first one man exhibition in this country. His wood engravings are in strong blacks and whites with little shading of values. Emphasis is placed upon facial expressions of naivete and upon the flow of line of figures in strong movement. The 'Accordian,' is one of the most attractive examples of Eekman's style. 'The Vagabonds With Birds,' is typical of the lyric spirit in which he approaches his material."
Of his co-exhibitor, the critic notes with some obvious concern about Eekman's decision to partner with his student, "Katherine Day, a Canadian artist, whose work appeared last summer at the New York World's Fair, is showing a group of monotypes in the same room, in which hang the works of Eekman, with whom she has studied. There is not a trace of his strong feeling for contrast in her romantic studies of 'The Little Goose Girl,' and 'Diana and her Maidens,' which represent her style. These are in pale, almost pastel color, indistinct in outline and have more interest as decoration than as emotional expression."
There is an “x” in the border of the clipped-out page, of the Art News, presumably put there by Day, marking the paragraph from the rest of the reviews below, which include one for Chinese painter, Chang-Shan-tse, Frederick Ballard Williams, and Edwin W. Dickenson. On the left side of the page, number 16 in the publication, are advertisements for New York and London galleries, that include artists such as Renoir, Degas, Rousseau, Morisot, Redon, Vuiliard, and Toulouse-Lautrec. On the reverse, there is an advertisement from the Bignou Gallery of New York, offering news of the lastest paintings and watercolors by Raoul Dufy, and exhibitions in other galleries that included artists such as Sebastiano del Piombo, Francesco Salviati, Antonio Moro, Reynolds, Gainsborough and Goya.
As a fledgling artist, with high expectations for the future, it would be assumed the young Katherine Day would have been pleased by the company of acclaimed painters she had joined, in an editorial context, for that issue of the Art News. But being sensitive to such a critique, she probably felt a profound sense of failure, especially that her mentor, Nicholas Eekman had experienced a somewhat modest review, somewhat due to the fact he had agreed to partner with her, for this 1939 exhibition. It's to be expected that some critics were shocked, that an artist with his expanding international reputation, would have agreed to such a collaboration, with a student possessing a romantic preference for the kinder, more beautiful profiles of life and fantasy. In contrast to Eekman's darker views, and characterizations of peasants, and the mix of humanity he found most interesting to depict.
After the success of her earlier exhibition, at the New York World's Fair, it's understandable she felt her career had been dealt a substantial blow, but there is no indication Eekman felt the exhibition, partnered with Day had been a failure, or damaging to his own reputation as an emerging master. Especially with his release of his wounded Don Quixote characterization in the same year. It was indeed a year of contrasts for both master artist and his pupil. Eekman went on to great successes in the international art community, painting through the years of the Second World War, and evading the German pursuers who wished to confine him, while Katherine Day returned to the place of her birth, and to a homestead she designed in Oro-Medonte, near Bass Lake, that she called “Hawthornes”, and later, when she had a second house built to her design wishes, known as “Pax” cottage, on what is now known as Horseshoe Valley Road.
Katherine Day was without question, a talented, bright, intelligent artist, designer, and writer, who had been privileged to afford art instruction from accomplished painters, in Canada, such as Franz Johnston, of the legendary Group of Seven Artists, and J. W. Beatty, who taught the Summer School of the College of Art at Port Hope, and then, in Europe with both Eekman, and Henri Jannot.
Returning to Canada, a personal choice of the artist, was possibly influenced by the 1939 exhibit, which was not a clear success for either partners of the show. It isn't mentioned in Eekman's biographical material, nor is there any reference to Day that we could find. In her collection of archive papers we acquired, however, there are three notices of Eekman exhibitions in Paris, at the end of the 1960's, that he may have sent to his former student, residing then in Oro-Medonte.
The onset of the Second World War, and the eventual invasion of France by Germany, provided reason for Day to avoid returning to Europe at this point, and Eekman found remaining in Paris a dangerous situation. He carried-on his painting from less obvious locations, and changing the way he signed his artwork, and Katherine Day found the pleasant seclusion of her fifty acres of land in Oro-Medonte a suitable respite and, in time, a most inspirational refuge. She had decided to return to her roots, and the place that had given her a good home and education as a student, and it was no hardship to her artwork, to be surrounded by the forests, wildflowers, and hills and valleys of the region.
It was an enormous change of atmosphere from the cityscapes of London and Paris, and socializing with some of the most prominent artists at that time in history. It's not to suggest she didn't have regrets about what some critics would argue was an unfortunate retreat, from what she might have accomplished in closer company to these same artists, with glowing international reputations, and accomplishments, that were mounting year after year. These were not obscure, village or city known artists but personalities in the art community who were in the process of influencing the world's cultural tide. If Katherine Day had remained in Europe, and carried on her companionship with these same artists, might she have enjoyed a greater prominence, than she achieved in the rural clime of Ontario, specifically, working from her modest homestead, "Hawthornes," in Oro-Medonte; the same region, I should mention, that was highlighted by writer Kenneth Wells in his series of books from the legendary "Owl Pen," where he worked as a modern day homesteader, with his wife and artist wife, Lucille Oille. This is the intrigue for another chapter.
At this moment, penning the last thoughts for today's chapter, the late afternoon sun of the harvest season is glowing down upon this picturesque landscape of Oro-Medonte, lacing all the natural attributes together in a basket-weave of gold. The rail fences look as if they have just been erected, and the evergreens seem taller and more vibrant, just as the autumn reds and oranges of the venerable hardwoods, appear to have just this moment of viewing, been painted by the artist in residence. I must set down my pen for now, but please join me again next month in this fine publication, for another visit to the life and times of Oro-Medonte Artist, Katherine Day.