Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

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Reminiscences of Marc-Aurèle Fortin

by Walter Klinkhoff

 

MARC-AURÈLE FORTIN was amongst the first Canadian artists I visited regularly.  He was living with his wife at that time, the mid fifties, in a house on St. Urbain Street near Laurier and he lived in a truly bohemian style.  Nothing seemed to have ever been dusted and it was impossible to find a place to sit down.  Broken window panes had been repaired with adhesive tape, paintings and paint tubes were everywhere, under the table, in cupboards, in every corner and under the sofa.  Both he and his wife were extremely nice people and seemed to like me.  “Marco”, as she called him, was always dressed like a derelict who had slept in a gutter.  A diabetic, he had to get exercise and went everywhere on an old bicycle.  I liked his work very much and his prices were very reasonable, but in those days nothing was easy to sell.  Fortin was very interesting to listen to but he told me that “his own people”, meaning French Canadians, took him for a house painter when he told them of what his work consisted.  Up until that time, he said, he had only had some recognition in Mexico where he must have been some years earlier.  Mrs. Fortin was also an intelligent and quite intellectual person.  Like her husband’s father, hers also had been a judge.  She had an unfortunate squint, one eye looking almost at right angles sideways, and one had to get used to this at first.  When Fortin bought the house in St. Rose and moved there with Archambault and his girlfriend, Mrs. Fortin did not go with them.  They had not been married very long, had not been getting along and “Marco” told me that he had given her $5,000 and wanted to be rid of her.  But I am ahead of my story.

 

Usually I bought earlier works which he had in abundance, even though most of the paintings were in storage with Galerie L’Art Français, who later said they had an exclusive contract for selling the works.  In those days Fortin never bought materials for painting, but when I brought casein colours, brushes and good paper, I could come back a few days later to get some nice casein paintings, not his best work any longer by any means, but still remarkably original in style and firm in design and execution.  Prices were always very modest and never discussed.

 

Montreal’s best know frame maker was Antoine’s.  He had an art gallery attached to his framing business and was frequently surprised to see how many Fortins I had from the artist and left with him for framing.  He had never been able to get any and asked me if I would be willing to take him along the next time I visited Fortin.  This we soon did and I thought I might be doing Fortin a favour by bringing Antoine Ulrich with me.  When Antoine asked for some prices, the watercolours I had been buying for $20 were for Antoine $250 and $300, far more than what they could be sold for at that time.  After mentioning the prices, Fortin had disappeared into the kitchen.  We waited for maybe twenty minutes and then started to ask where he was.  Mrs. Fortin told us he had taken the bicycle to go to a tavern to drink wine.  For some reason never disclosed to me, Fortin did not want to have anything to do with Antoine.  Antoine bought nothing but when I returned the next day, prices had reverted to the $20 level.

 

On one occasion I discovered a beautiful painting of a view of Baie St. Paul in winter, with people in heavy coats in front of the church, some sleight, dark sky.  It was in perfect condition in a pile with other things of lesser quality and I decided to buy it.  Fortin mentioned his modest price and I agreed.  However, he insisted I had to see it “mis en valeur”, on a wall.  He found a large four-inch nail and drove it through the middle of the panel into the wall.  I think he was teasing me and expected me to scream.  I did not take the bait, admired the painting which really was one of his very good ones, paid for it and left.  I had the hole repaired, no problem for my restorer.

 

Fortin asked for some assistance in connection with his move to St. Rose and my wife and I picked him up and drove him to St. Rose.  On the way he told me some strange and disquieting things.  He had engaged a man by the name of Archambault as a chauffeur and had given him money to buy a car.  Archambault had the car registered in his own name and Fortin wanted to know if this was comme il faut!  I told him to make sure the registration was put into his own name promptly, but I am quite sure this was never done.  The old stone house Fortin had bought had a gaping crack in its outside wall and this was to be repaired.  A bathroom was to be improved and the cost of this seemed to me totally out of line, a multiple of what it should have been.  I had recently had some work done at my house and had a good means of comparison.  Visiting him in the hospital, I was asked by a doctor some questions about Archambault.  There was no medicare yet and the doctor had sent a bill.  Archambault had come to see the doctor, asked him to send a bill for a much higher fee and split the difference with him.  The doctor had thrown him out and threatened a criminal charge.

 

Fortin had always told me that he would never be poor because his father had left him some money in a trust account that he could not touch, and he had a regular income for this which he could live on modestly.  He died destitute nevertheless.  His father’s will was in the hands of a lawyer of dubious reputation.  A clause in the will permitted withdrawal of funds in events of emergencies.  Between the lawyer and Archambault all the money was gradually withdrawn.  Had René Buisson not looked after Fortin the last years of his life, I really wonder what would have become of him.

 

When the second leg had to be amputated, Fortin was totally at the mercy of Archambault.  I found it very difficult to visit, the situation was so tragic.  I arrived one day when Fortin was sitting in his bed, holding his beads and saying the Rosary.  I waited until he had finished, gathering my thoughts.  The bed sheet he had, originally white, was a dark grey, closer to black.  Fortin looked emaciated and probably was hardly fed.  I was powerless.  More and more Fortin forgeries were coming on the market and it became known that Archambault’s girlfriend was the source of the copies and fakes.  One evening, Archambault, with whom I had never wanted to have any business dealing, unexpectedly rang my doorbell at home.  He had three large paintings in his car and wanted to sell them but would not come into the house, or maybe I did not ask him.  He spread the three canvases on my front lawn.  They were very good and I would have loved to buy them.  He gave me the price and I accepted under the condition that I would give a cheque made out to M.-A. Fortin.  I had never seen a man roll up three canvases and depart more quickly that he did!

 

On another occasion, following a brief telephone conversation, two gentlemen arrived at the gallery carrying three paintings covered with wrapping paper.  I had understood the paintings were to be offered to me for sale.  After inspection I declared I was not interested in buying them and was asked for a reason.  I was known to buy paintings by Fortin and always had some on display or in stock.  I explained that I do not usually give a reason when I turn down a painting because it so often offends.  I was told to feel free to make any remark, no one would take offence.  I then declared that in my opinion the three paintings were fakes.  At this point the gentleman who until then had not said anything introduced himself with a card showing he was a lawyer.  He told me that they had suspected the paintings were spurious, already had another opinion to this effect, and asked me to give my opinion in writing as there would very likely be a lawsuit.  After some thought, I refused to do this although under normal circumstances I had always given my opinion freely in writing and appeared as a witness.  I explained to the lawyer, asking him to bear in mind this very unusual situation I reasoned that Fortin was completely in the power of Archambault who was much involved with the selling of fakes.  He later was convicted on another charge and sentenced to a jail term.  Archambault could force Fortin to testify that he had painted the pictures and although, under subpoena, my testimony would have to be that the paintings were in my opinion forgeries, a judge would have to take the word of the artist, although he was in his dotage.  My advice was to not sue while Fortin could be forced to sign just about any declaration presented to him by Archambault.

 

In a Fraser Bros. auction sale I once bought an outstanding Fortin winter landscape of Baie St. Paul with the church, horses and sleights, deep snow and icicles hanging from the roofs.  It was framed in a narrow very cheap frame in which Fortin sometimes sold his best paintings, although he usually sold them unframed.  I had a client for the picture and hung it up in his office the next day and sold it.  My client insisted I should take the painting away again and return it properly framed.  While unfitting the painting, I was astonished to find not just the single board the picture had been painted on but a second board, used as a backing, and this had an equally lovely and quite similar complete, signed Fortin winter landscape painted on it.  Both oils were equally fine and amongst the best I had ever had.  I never mentioned this to my customer, who was a lawyer, fearing that it might lead to a disagreeable discussion.  With lawyers one has to be very careful.  They can put you to great expense and inconvenience without incurring much themselves and one is inclined to give in even if one is in the right.  I was amused to see an item in the papers last week (April ’93), reporting a similar occurrence.  The Montreal Museum discovered an early Pellan work that the artist also had used as a backing.  There were advised that the principle “Finders Keepers” applied, and they are pleased to keep it in their collection.

 

In my early years when I once bought paintings from Fortin he often mentioned two other collectors, Buisson and Bonneville, both from the Rouyn area, one a Molson Brewery distributor, the other a newspaper publisher.  We each probably bought about one hundred or more paintings.  I sold them at a small profit and they kept theirs, saw the value multiply at a great rate and sold some many years later at the then prevailing very high prices.

 

Fortin’s position with regard to his relations with Galerie L’Art Français, his dealers and depositors of his paintings for storage, formed the subject of several conversations I had with him and is at variance with much I have heard since.  Mr. and Mrs. Lange, a Belgian couple, had founded Galerie L’Art Français in the early thirties.  Business must have been extremely difficult and the work by even the best artists could not be sold.  They had rented premises on Laurier Avenue.  Fortin was one of the true creative artists with a compulsion to paint and quite indifferent about selling, so his work just accumulated and storage became a problem.  The Langes offered Fortin free storage and he accepted.  I believe he also promised to give them exclusive selling rights, but this must have been done very informally and Fortin certainly paid no attention to this.  In my experience the Langes were difficult to deal with.  In my early days I did some business with them, occasionally buying something but far more often selling or giving them paintings for sale on consignment.  After they either had bought something or taken it on consignment one did not hear about it any more.  When a consigned painting had been sold, you only knew that it was no longer on the wall and after a few visits it was finally admitted that it was sold.  Getting paid was the next hurdle and it took many visits until finally a cheque was issued.  Thirty days credit or postal service did not exist.  I was never even told a cheque was in the mail!  Mr. or Mrs. were too busy to write one and you had to come back many times.  Fortin mentioned how Lange one day told him he could not get his lease renewed and would have to give up his business or buy the building.  Fortin would lose his storage facilities.  Fortin was the one who then lent Lange the money to buy the building on Laurier Avenue.  Just before Fortin dies, he was sued by the Langes for a huge amount of money for framing, restoration, storage, damages for breach of contract and other delinquencies.  I believe this was done to establish a claim against which the Langes could lay claim to the paintings they had in storage.  What became of this claim I do not know.

 

           

 

Source: "Reminiscences of an Art Dealer" (1993), the memoirs of Walter H. Klinkhoff.


© Copyright Galerie Walter Klinkhoff

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"Hochelaga", 1929

Oil on board  18.1/2" x 18.1/2" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"Winter Scene", 1940

Oil on panel 18" x 24" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"Sunday at St. Helen's Island", c. 1924

Oil on board  24" x 29.1/2" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"Goélette near Rivière-au-Renard", c. 1940

Oil on board  38" x 28" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"Autumn Landscape"

Oil on board  10.3/4" x 10" (SOLD)

Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Canadian Art Dealer & Gallery in Montreal

Marc-Aurèle Fortin, A.R.C.A. (1888-1970)

"L'Anse aux Gascons", c. 1938

Oil on canvas  35.1/4" x 40.1/2" (SOLD)