Listening to Art

11.07: Helen McNicoll, The Blue Sea (On the Beach at Saint-Malo)

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Listening to Art, by William Denton.

Volume eleven, number seven: The Blue Sea (On the Beach at Saint-Malo) by Helen McNicoll.

Hello, and welcome to Listening to Art. I’m William Denton.

This is the second of two works by Canadian artist Helen McNicoll. She was born in Toronto in 1879 but grew up in an affluent family in Montreal’s Westmount neighbourhood. When she was two she caught scarlet fever and lost her hearing. In her late teens she began to study at the Art Association of Montreal, and in 1902 moved to London to go to the Slade School of Art. In 1905 she moved to Cornwall, where she met her partner Dorothea Sharp, a British painter. She lived and work in England and France, with annual trips back to Canada, until her death in 1915, aged thirty-five.

Samantha Burton says in Helen McNicoll: Life & Work: “McNicoll was one of only a small number of Canadian artists to fully adopt Impressionism as a style.” In the “Impressionism in Canada” section, she continues:

Though the reception of Impressionism in Canada was frequently ambivalent and sometimes overtly negative, McNicoll’s work was almost unanimously well received. Some critics objected to her representation of water as rigid and unnatural—Fishing, c. 1907, for example, drew this criticism—but reviewers were generally supportive of her efforts, saying that she avoided the “extreme effects and extravagant technique” of some of her peers. Her gender may partially explain this positive reaction: Norma Broude and Tamar Garb have noted that Impressionism was coded as a feminine style and that women Impressionists received positive notice for their soft, pretty treatments of everyday subjects, even as their male colleagues received criticism for those same qualities.

Impressionism had a short life in Canada. When McNicoll was receiving positive notice for her canvases, the movement was already nearly forty years old in France, and the established avant-garde movement was Cubism. By the time Impressionism was widely accepted by the public in Canada, artists such as Emily Carr (1871–1945), Emily Coonan (1885–1971), and the Group of Seven had moved on to Post-Impressionist styles. McNicoll’s own brief career neatly mirrors the short burst of attention given to Impressionism in Canada in its day.

This is a painting, oil on canvas, 61 cm wide by 51.4 cm high.

Now let’s listen to The Blue Sea (On the Beach at Saint-Malo) by Helen McNicoll, recorded at the National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa, on 29 June 2022.

Waveform of the field recording.

That was The Blue Sea (On the Beach at Saint-Malo) by Helen McNicoll. I hope you enjoyed listening to it as much as I did.

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All web sites accessed as of date of publication.

Burton, Samantha. Helen McNicoll: Life & Work. Toronto: Art Canada Institute, 2017.

Wikipedia, s.v. “Helen McNicoll,”