"The canoe painting Night Fishing is an attempt to paint a disappearance. The figures and boat are on the verge of a dissolve into landscape - picture - space" (P. Doig, quoted in About Vision: New British Painting in the 1990s, exh.cat., Edinburgh, 1997).
Close to dusk, as the light is diminishing, so too is the ability to see what is happening. A single long boat drifts effortlessly into and out of view, with what appears to be a lone figure crouched at one end concentrating on his catch. Cast against a vast expanse of water and framed by a mountainous silhouette, this is an unmistakably Canadian scene. Painted in 1993, the epic Night Fishing is a sumptuous and evocative picture, its vast expanse packed with mystery and detail, showing one of Peter Doig's most celebrated themes: the canoe on water. Images of canoes have formed a touchstone for the artist since the beginning of his career in the 1980s, reappearing in several major works such as Swamped (1990), White Canoe (1991), his 1995 painting Lunker and later 100 Years Ago (Carrera) of 2001 which is now in the collection of the Centre Pompidou, Paris. However, none of these other works have dealt with the element of light and its impact on our vision as reflected in the act of painting in such a complete way as Night Fishing.
Highly influenced by the great Impressionist painters, most particularly Monet and his attempt to paint scenes under differing light conditions, Doig here takes his concepts a stage further by using actual abstract painterly processes to represent a figurative scene. Recalling the densely-detailed yet curiously depth-less visions of nature of Gustav Klimt's landscapes, where figurative reality is pushed to the brink of abstraction, in Night Fishing the friction between the two modes of representation is so effortlessly depicted that it reflects vision itself. Across a vast panoramic expanse, the shapes of the boat, the figure and the landscape are melting out of sight. And Doig has echoed this aspect of the subject matter in the actual execution of the picture: it is emphatically gestural, and so the motif melts into abstraction, semi-occluded by the paint itself. Composed of a series of Mark Rothko-like veils of translucent colour and controlled drips and splatters which recall Jackson Pollock, its lush, detailed surface is clearly the result of the artist's own travails and movements. Much as an image in darkness begins to take shape the more one looks at it; here through a series of abstract processes, a figurative image begins to come to life.
Unlike Monet, who prized painting en plein air or in the outdoors to get the closest reaction to nature, Peter Doig painted this extraordinary landscape scene in his studio in London. Based on an image found in a magazine sourced in London, this image, along with others that he has created throughout his travelling life, are the result of a desire to depict, capture and represent his memories, thoughts, feelings and experiences relating to his upbringing in Canada. Having studied art in London during the 1980s, he had returned to Canada for an interlude, living in Montreal between 1987 and 1989. Despite being impressed and inspired by some of his artistic predecessors there, it was only through absence that he began to discover that, regardless of his chosen theme, his "home" was invading his pictures:
A lot of the paintings aren't of Canadian subjects, but somehow they always end up looking Canadian-- it's strange. I'm aware that I can't get away from Canada, because my formative years were spent there. During the time that I returned to Canada I tried to make a painting of the landscape en plein air, and I found it impossible to have either a focus or distance on that image. I was much more comfortable with looking at something on a page, as a way to contain the image. On my return I would go to Canada House in London and look through the brochures advertising holidays in northern Canada. And I discovered a whole set of images that refer to this almost dream-like notion of what these places are actually like, images that described an almost idealized idea of the wilderness experience (P. Doig, quoted in A. Searle, K. Scott & C. Grenier, Peter Doig, London, 2007, p. 131).
As with all of Doig's great paintings, here he manages to balance the sense of his intellectual progression of painting in the late twentieth century, with his acute relationship with tradition and most particularly Romanticism. This is a thoroughly Romantic image in the vein of the great German Romantic painters of the 19th Century, such as Caspar David Friedrich. Doig has captured a sense of his own experiences of Canada in Night Fishing, as well as a more general, oneiric atmosphere of man's place in a vast universe, in a great expanse. Is this image of a man alone in nature battling with the elements, attempting to tame them for his own benefit and enjoyment somehow a metaphor for the painter working alone in his studio attempting to control not just the materiality of paint but also the violent human gestures he makes to construct the scene? Presenting this scene without the gloss, context and narrative of the original fishing ad, Doig has introduced an existential dimension, prompting the viewer to ask questions about the picture itself, the world it represents, and our own place within our own surroundings. As such, one begins to understand that what at first appears to be a very straightforward beautiful landscape is in fact a painting about painting. Both in its subject matter and execution, the marriage of figurative dreams, memories and visions with painterly processes and concepts, Night Fishing achieves a significant and highly impressive crescendo in Peter Doig's oeuvre.