Photographic book

Landscape Development in Canadian Art


William Notman
William Notman

In 1867 the British colonies in Canada formed a united country. This federal union, known as the Confederation of Canada, had little immediate effect on the production of art. Only toward the end of the 19th century did the idea of a national spirit in art take hold in Canada, and it found expression in landscape painting.

Landscape became the ideal subject for representing the new country. In place of the panoramic views of early topographical painting, artists substituted more intimate, close-up scenes of nature. These scenes emphasized the landscape’s changing light and color, making the rural world appear accessible and welcoming.

In Québec and Ontario, painters such as Lucius O’Brien, John Arthur Fraser, and Allan Edson produced quiet, poetic images of the Canadian countryside. These landscapes, with their emphasis on nature’s grandeur and magnificence, were similar to the landscapes of the American Hudson River School, but without the otherworldly atmosphere of the American paintings.

During the 1880s, Fraser, O’Brien, Frederick Verner, F. M. Bell-Smith, and other painters traveled to western Canada to paint the spectacular waterfalls and mountains of the Rocky Mountains. Owners of the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR), Canada’s first transcontinental railroad, sponsored their trip. Through contrasts of small and large, near and far, and light and dark, the painters emphasized the natural grandeur of the country.

Their heroic visions of the Canadian wilderness introduced eastern Canadians to the west and served as advertisements for the railroad.

They were also sold in Britain and elsewhere to encourage immigration to the Canadian west. The artists produced oil paintings when they were back in their studios. They based these paintings on watercolors done at the spot and on photographs supplied by the CPR and by William Notman, Canada’s foremost 19th-century photographer.

Ontario Society of Artists
Ontario Society of Artists

Romanticized views of the Canadian wilderness remained the most popular theme in Canadian painting at the turn of the 20th century. But some painters, such as Homer Watson in Ontario and Ozias Leduc in Québec, preferred the quiet rural settings of their own villages. Watson concentrated on small incidents of farm life and usually included working people in his pictures, a rare occurrence in Canadian landscape paintings. Leduc, a deeply religious man, gave the countryside a more spiritual aura. His realistic studies of nature, along with his religious images and still-lifes, reflect his vision. Through the careful use of color and texture, he communicated the spiritual nature of all creatures and objects, no matter how humble. Both Watson and Leduc painted in the late 19th century and well into the 20th century.

The Canadian art community itself became more sophisticated in the late 1800s. Both fine art and technical schools offered advanced art training and based their instruction on European models. Women were gradually permitted to enroll in painting, drawing, and design classes. Artists banded together in professional associations in communities across Canada to present exhibitions of their work and to create a commercial market for Canadian art. The Art Association of Montreal (later the Montréal Museum of Fine Arts) was founded in 1860 by painters and collectors. In Toronto, the Ontario Society of Artists held its first exhibition in 1873. The society was instrumental in establishing the Art Gallery of Toronto (renamed the Art Gallery of Ontario in the late 1960s). These groups, and the museums that followed, also offered art classes. The federal government created the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa and the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880, giving Canadian art a new status and national recognition. "Canada" © Emmanuel BUCHOT, Encarta, Wikipedia.

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