An International Sensation

Between 1969 and 1973 Morrisseau became known nationally and internationally for his visual storytelling process of art making.



Exhibition in France.



Norval Morrisseau spent six months in prison in Kenora, ON, suffering from alcoholism that led to public intoxication. During his incarceration, he was provided with an additional jail cell to use as a studio. He painted some significant works of art during this period.

Joined the Professional Native Indian Artist Inc. (PNIAI) also known as the “Indian Group of Seven” organized by Odawa artist Daphne Odjig in Winnipeg, MB. Other members included Alex Janvier, Jackson Beardy, Eddie Cobiness, and Joe Sanchez.

The organization’s mandate was to support emerging Indigenous artists.

Featured in two National Film Board of Canada (NFB) documentaries including Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1973) and Colors of Pride (1974).

Poster from the 1968 exhibition in the Newport Art Museum.

While Morrisseau was working on the site of Expo ‘67 in Montreal prior to its opening, he met Dr. Herbert Schwarz, a medical doctor and gallery owner. They formed a friendship that led to the mounting of three exhibitions and the production of a collection of illustrations for Schwarz’s book Windigo and Other Tales of the Ojibways (1969). 

Schwarz owned Galerie Cartier in Montreal and worked with Jack Pollock to organize exhibitions in Montreal at Galerie Cartier (1967), followed by one in Newport RI, USA–a group show with Inuit art in 1968. Importantly, the exhibition that Schwarz and Pollock mounted in 1969 in St. Paul de Vence, France was Norval Morrisseau’s first international solo exhibition that led to other European exhibitions.

Morrisseau’s exhibition in St. Paul de Vence, France, 1969

Herbert Schwarz and Jack Pollock organized the exhibition with support from the Canadian Government.

The catalogue essay was written by Schwarz and it was promoted as an exposition of "Legendes Indiennes du Grand Nord Canadien" or "paintings about Indigenous legends".

Poster for Norval Morrisseau exhibition at St-Paul-De-Vence, France, 1969, Indigenous Art Centre, CIRNAC.

Invitation to the vernissage for the Morrisseau exhibition at Galerie St.-Paul, September 1969, Courtesy of Kinsman Robinson Gallery.

Stills from INA French TV: showing Morrisseau’s exhibition in St. Paul de Vence, 1969.

Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Bear Ancestral Figure, 1969.

    This rare French television footage invites us to experience Morrisseau’s art show.

    Norval Morrisseau, Sacred Turtle Shaking Tent, 1969.

    In this painting, Morrisseau shows jiisaakan as part of Mikkinuk’s body or shell. He paints the doorway as the turtle’s heart. The work is encircled by energy bundles and a spirit figure enters through Mikkinuk’s open mouth.

    The use of earthtones in this painting were common elements of Morrisseau’s colour palette during this period.

    Morrisseau talks about the sacred turtle and the connection to the shaking tent.

    When a shaman performs a Shaking Tent Ceremony, he needs someone who can interpret all the spirit voices he hears. The Ojibway call this interpreter the Mikkinuk. He looks like a small turtle but in spite of his size he is very powerful and can even be dangerous.

    Norval Morrisseau, Art of Norval Morrisseau 1979, p. 62.

    Morrisseau paints a young child wearing a yellow hood on a vibrant red background, colours chosen for their spiritual significance. The designs that Morrisseau paints on the hood mimic floral forms and reflect bead work.

    Prayer hoods were an important part of ceremonies in Cree communities such as Sandy Lake, where Morrisseau’s wife Harriet is from.


    Norval Morrisseau, Papoose, 1969.


    The cover of this exhibition catalogue from 2000 shows an archival image of Morrisseau standing next to a mural painted jointly by Carl Ray (l), Joshim Kakegamic (c), and Norval Morrisseau in the early 1970s.

    A number of Indigenous artists began to embrace elements of Morrisseau Visual Language and this style is often referred to as the Woodland School or Woodland art.

    In the spring of 1971, Morrisseau and Cree artist Carl Ray, along with Cree artist Joshim Kakegamic (Harriet’s brother), were hired by the Ontario Department of Education to conduct a series of art classes and workshops across Northern Ontario. Their visits included such locations as Kirkland Lake, Timmins, Elliot Lake, and Manitoulin Island.

    During 1973, Norval Morrisseau was invited by Odawa artist Daphne Odjig to join a group of Indigenous artists who planned to form a collective that would mentor and support young Indigenous artists.

    Daphne Odjig ran the Warehouse gallery in Winnipeg and invited six other artists to join her. Sometimes referred to as the “Indian Group of Seven” the PNIAI mounted several exhibitions from 1973-1975.

    Anishinaabe curator Michelle Lavallee mounted 7: Professional Native Indian Artists Inc. at the MacKenzie Art Gallery in 2013, a monumental exhibition that explored the group’s impact.


    Norval Morrisseau, Water Spirit, 1972.

    Morrisseau painted this powerful painting for Indian Art ‘72 at the Royal Ontario Museum. A work filled with movement and spiritual force, this important painting of the sacred water god Michupichu reflects the dynamic nature of this horned spiritual being. The artist includes six divided circles, lines of communication, and energy.

    Jean Chrétien views Water Spirit while touring exhibition Indian Art ‘72 in Toronto, ON.

    Mohawk curator Tom Hill and Minister of Indian Affairs Jean Chrétien view Water Spirit while touring the exhibition Indian Art ‘72 in Toronto, ON, 1972. Photo courtesy of Royal Ontario Museum.

    Norval Morrisseau, Shaman Rider, 1972.

    In 1972, Morrisseau painted this evocative work of a shaman riding a Thunderbird as a form of transmigration. The work, done in earthtones, offers viewers an understanding of an interconnected and relational way of knowing the world with birds; a knowledge keeper and a powerful god soar through the sky realm. Line and divided circles help express the spiritual energy present in this work.

    In this sketch done while in a Kenora, ON jail in 1973, Morrisseau uses paper towelling to create a drawing that tells a story of the how a sacred trout carries a human soul to a “new existence.” Morrisseau often painted sacred fish but this drawing shows the artist’s process as he experiments with how to visually present this story using only line. Such sketches inspired future paintings.

    Norval Morrisseau, Transmigration of the Human Soul To Another Existence, 1972-73.

    Norval Morrisseau, Norval Morrisseau and Jack Pollock at Cafe Counter, Toronto 1973.

    Taken eleven years after Norval Morrisseau first met his art dealer Jack Pollock, the two survived a rocky relationship and went on to be close friends.

    This work was painted while Morrisseau was in jail in Kenora, ON and is featured as a significant painting in the NFB’s Paradox of Norval Morrisseau (1974). While Morrisseau questions his relationship to Christianity in the documentary, the narrator points to this painting as evidence of his enduring connection with Christianity. Soon after this, Morrisseau is introduced to Eckankar and he leaves Christianity behind.

    I feel that I have outgrown Christianity. Christ never enters my mind anymore. But I do believe he was a good soul…I worshipped him but I had been brainwashed until I feared him.

    Norval Morrisseau, Art of Norval Morrisseau, 1979, p 42.

    Norval Morrisseau, Indian Jesus Christ, 1974.

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