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J.E.H. MacDonald. Flower Border, Usher Farm, York Mills, 1915 or 1916. Oil on wood panel, 21.3 x 26.8 cm. The Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario. Photo: Michael Cullen

The Canadian artist J.E.H. MacDonald painted this cheerful view of a midsummer garden in troubled times. The sketch, from the Thomson Collection at the Art Gallery of Ontario, was completed during the First World War, in 1915 or 1916, at Usher Farm in York Mills, which at that time was countryside north of Toronto. Today, we face some echoes of those years that called for collective forbearance during a time of profound anxiety. And, like the painter in the garden, we can still take consolation from nature - or its representation, as The Globe and Mail revives its year-end holiday card tradition for this long weekend, one of reflection and renewal.

As part of the war effort, Usher Farm was being cultivated by members of the Arts and Letters Club, to which MacDonald belonged. These were pivotal years for the artist during which his free brushwork and powerful colour sense were driving his painting forward even as critics balked. This intensely present sketch also reveals his keen observation of common flowers: The red salvia, orange day lilies and towering blue delphinium suggest it was executed in late June or early July when the garden was at its fullest and brightest.

By April, the green shoots of these same plants have emerged from the ground and are pushing toward the light; looking at MacDonald’s painting you can remember their promise, and almost feel the heat of the sunshine and hear the sound of the bees. Summertime’s offer of casual comfort and lazy liberty can’t be that far away.

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