Canadian art is an amalgam of many different influences, both indigenous and imported from other countries, but did not have a truly national identity until after the end of the First World War, and didn’t really come of age until after World War Two. Canada’s centenary as a nation in 1967 served as a strong impetus to the development of a national Canadian art, hosting many international visitors to Expo ’67 held that year in Montreal, Quebec.
As in most colonized countries, as settlement developed there was very little time, energy or money to spend on extras: at first, any artistic expression was reserved for religious art, especially in Roman Catholic Quebec in the late 17th and early 18th century, and any devotional art was either produced in Canada using simple materials and techniques by partially trained but definitely skilled priests and lay persons. For example the above devotional piece would traditionally have been made from painted metal, but the piece here, due the absence of metal working capability was made of skilfully painted wood.
From early on in settlement, women in religious orders settled in French Canada as teachers, nurses and what we would today define as social workers – in addition to their regular assignments they were often highly skilled needlewomen, producing fine altar cloths and vestments. Although the period of the above chapel is later – around the late 1850’s – I wanted to include the striking chapel of the Sisters of St.Joseph, a nursing order whose first hospital was here at the Mother House in Montreal prior to 1700.
Coupled with ecclesiastical art in the early colonies of Canada, another strong source of locally produced art were the many army and navy officers based there, who had all been trained in those days before photographic records and computer based models, in the skill of producing quick and accurate watercolour sketches. In the case of cartographic surveys, the officer in charge would make notes, sketches and record topography and sound depths of water, and on shore at a base camp like that shown above which happened to be on Sable Island 100 miles off the coast of Halifax – a huge sandbar with no safe landing places- they would make more permanent records.
By far the most stunning records left by the military presence in Canada is Joseph Frederick Wallet Des Barres’ “Atlantic Neptune” a set of detailed sea charts which was commissioned by the British Admiralty and published in London around 1780.
The two watercolour paintings above were published in the early 1800’s of views of Halifax. The one directly above was done by a British army officer around 1820.
Paul Kane was a young man who was raised and educated in Toronto, which was then called York, and a town of about 4,000 people.
He self educated himself by copying great works in Europe before returning and working his way west with a team of Hudson’s Bay
employees painting and recording as he went – his sketches made out on the land have been of immeasurable use to anthropologists and ethnologists, giving a visual record of the First Nations of the land at the time of early contact.
As the colonies in Canada ceased, to a large extent , to be at the heart of the struggle between France and Great Britain, settlement was free to move ahead, and the basic struggle for life in a hostile, and at times unforgiving, environment began to ease. People began to be able to produce more than what was needed to survive, and they were able to sell their surplus production. A new “middle class” began to emerge and ladies had the leisure for the first time to pursue the arts, as well as manage their family home and preserve food and make clothing to supply their family’s needs. The “lady artist” was born and frequently her sketches, landscapes and portraits were surprisingly good.
Immigrant artists were to be found, teaching classes in painting in young ladies schools, as well as producing art for the new middle class; and decorating and embellishing the home and also public spaces became more common.
So Canadians, at this point in time where they began to have some leisure, (this happened at varying times depending on how new a settlement area was, and tended to be later the further west one went)began to acquire art to suit their homes and tastes. The choice was twofold: They could commission or purchase art from artists trained to emulate the European ideal, or they could make art themselves or commission local people to produce it, and thus the Canadian Folk Idiom was born.
Above is “Snow Clouds”by Franklin Carmichael 1913
During the late Edwardian period, a group of seven young artists mostly from Great Britain were working as comercial artists in Toronto while trying to etablish themselves as artists painting in a truly Canadian style. They finally began to receive notice, albeit rather hostile notice, around 1920. Their paintings of Canadian landscapes, cityscapes and unconventional portraits were very exciting to those who had been steeped in the sanctity of the European inflenced Royal Canadian Academy, and the new art influenced the next generation of Canadian artists very heavily.
Laurentian Landscape - Lawren Harris 1914
This is where the Canadian art scene was on the eve of the Second World War, and due to the wide ranging conflict in Europe, Africa, the Middle East and the Far East, there was little opportunity for North American artists to visit or study at traditional old world art centres. The exception was the Canadian War Artists who were part of the Canadian army with a mandate to nake artistic record of what they saw while at war. A study of these artists is a work in itself – the artists encompassed many different skills and styles.
Lawren Harris, a member of the Group of Seven made pictorisl records in Halifax during the First World War while the principal of what is now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design, and produced a large body of work. C.W.Jeffreys was another artist who did some work in wood block prints. During the Second World War, Alex Colville, who would go on to become the legendary founder of the Magic Realism style of painting which influenced many of his students at Mount Allison and spread throughout the Atlantic provinces and then into the rest of Canada, was present on the beaches of Normandy on D Day.
Above: To Prince Edward Island – Alex Colville
Post World War Two Europe was again open to visitors, and a large number of people were de-mobilized from the military with an unheard of opportunity to study at schools and universities both at home and abroad. Canadian art received a strong input from a number of sources, not the least of which was the coming of age of the Canadian art scene on the Prairies and in Western Canada.
Above, Harold Town “Snap#58”
Above: Harold Town “Toy Horse” 1970
Above: Paul-Emile Borduas Transludite 1966
Coupled with the flowering of art in the south and in the cities, Canadians were becoming much more aware of the massive output, both historical and current, from First Nstion and Inuit sources. Up until the Post War period, most indigenous art was small enough to be easily portable for nomadic people; and/or artisanal work on everyday useful objects – ie: in the case of the Inuit small devotionsl objects mainly carved from ivory or soapstone, or slightly larger, very realistic carvings, again of ivory and sometimes embellished with leather thongs as called for – these carvings were usually highly detailed and delicately made with a clear affection for the details portrayed. A friend, on the east coast remembers playing as a chid with an ivory carving of a man in a kayak with all the necessary hunting supplies on the deck of the kayak. Her uncle had brought them as souvenirs from the arctic. The tradition of carrying home mementos, mostly to England, resulted in huge numbers of ethnic treasures being lost to Canada and to native Canadian peoples.
On the West Coast, the people had a long history of remarkable carvings embellishing household items and personal possessions; and massive, highly decorated log canoes – much of this priceless material was lost when the traditional Potlatch was banned by the early West Coast Government and items were seized, destroyed or simply ceased to be made.
Expo ’67 held in Montreal in Canada’s centennial year brought to international attention the various indigenous cultures and their art as visitors streamed through and saw native people producing an art they had not yet heard about.
I hope next week to dig more deeply into the traditions of native Canadian artists and artisans and give you an overview by region.
Until next week, enjoy today’s post and check out the really freat links I’ve left for your further research…….
Best Wishes, and Happy Valntine’s Day – Mich