Under the Shadow of the Tent 1914
Helen McNicoll, Under the Shadow of the Tent, 1914
Oil on canvas, 83.5 x 101.2 cm
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts
McNicoll painted this canvas in the south of France. One of the women in the tent perches on a folding stool while the second sits on the sand. The painting seems consistent with McNicoll’s interest in the sights and spaces of modern tourism: a bag of snacks lies on the blanket, and a hat lies discarded on the sand. But both figures are focused on artistic activities: the seated woman is wearing a painting smock as she looks in her box of painting materials, while the other is browsing through a sketchbook. The women, absorbed in their work, do not acknowledge each other or the viewer. The painting’s relatively large size supports the idea that women’s artistic activity is important.
Under the Shadow of the Tent is also an image of female partnership and friendship, especially when viewed in the context of other paintings produced by McNicoll and Dorothea Sharp (1874–1955), all clearly sketched at the same session. They include McNicoll’s In the Tent, 1914, and Sharp’s A Day by the Sea and Painting on the Beach, both 1914. Another version by Sharp, Marcella Smith at the Beach, The Languedoc, South of France, 1914, identifies the model who is painting as another artist, Marcella Smith (1887–1963), who would become Sharp’s lifelong companion after McNicoll’s death. Together, the works speak powerfully to a network of women who worked, travelled, and lived together in an atmosphere of mutual support and creativity.
This Impressionist painting was well received in both England and Canada. When it was exhibited at the Royal Society of British Artists, critics celebrated it as a “very easy and sure piece of painting.” In 1914, when it won the Women’s Art Society of Montreal prize for best painting by a Canadian woman at the Spring Exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal, the local press praised it as a “fluently painted and well observed canvas” whose brushwork shows “freedom and confidence.” Like McNicoll’s other beach scenes, Under the Shadow of the Tent is filled with bright sunlight as McNicoll uses pure whites, yellows, and blues to evoke the feeling of a clear, warm summer day at the seaside.