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Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918

Last Chance! Closes 17 February 2014

• Take a virtual tour of the exhibition •

The decades following the completion of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1886 to the end of the First World War saw Canada grow from an awkward alliance of formerly independent colonies to an agricultural and industrial nation. Optimism and a new spirit of national pride marked the peak boom years, stimulated by the immense growth in population due to immigration. Urban growth demanded new buildings, which became shells for civic ambitions and new opportunities for art workers. From the furnishings and interiors of a house, to the design and decoration of a public building, to the planning of the streetscape and larger urban fabric, it was an age of reform. Artists, architects and artisans worked together in cooperative ventures, introducing painting into architecture and the design and fabrication of furnishings. This exhibition examines the architecture, urban plans, painting, applied arts, graphic design and photography of a quality previously unparalleled in the country’s short history. Read more at the NGC Magazine.


The Artists, Architects, Artisans: Canadian Art 1890–1918 exhibition has a variety of themes. Explore some of these subjects and images below.


A Spirit of Mutual Inspiration

The 1890s saw an unprecedented interaction among Canadian artists working in various disciplines. Painters and sculptors were inspired by music and literature. Architects worked with painters and sculptors and were active in larger artistic organizations. Artisans spoke out about the need to recognize that art was not just something framed and hanging on a wall but should permeate all aspects of daily life. Communities of interest and friendships resulted in cooperative projects by painters, sculptors, authors, musicians, architects and artisans working with shared ideals and inspiration.

Piano and stool for the Louis-Joseph Forget House 1902 Image Image Image


Sites for Creative Action

In the late nineteenth century, artists, writers, architects, photographers and musicians created professional associations to promote their individual disciplines. They met together informally in studios and eventually established clubs to bring together the various art workers and to foster greater interaction and mutual inspiration. Clubs and associations, like the Woman’s Art Association of Canada and Montreal’s Pen and Pencil Club, both established in 1890 and Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club (1908), and the Heliconian Club, (1909), held regular musical, literary or art events. These groups, as well as the monthly periodical Le Nigog, became sites for creative partnerships and catalysts for many important activities over several decades.



For an Integration of the Arts: The Public Space

The integration of the arts within an architectural framework would take many forms in the nineteenth century, but prior to 1900 it was rare for an architect or decorator to conceive and carry out the project as a unified whole. Churches provided the first opportunities for collaborative efforts between painters and architects, since painting was an important tool for instruction and faith. George Reid’s interest in mural painting started in Paris and was furthered through friendships at the summer art colony of Onteora in the Catskills. Reid and other Toronto artists formed the Society of Mural Decorators in 1894. They soon proposed decorations for Toronto’s new City Hall but subsequent proposals for the Parliament Buildings in Toronto and Ottawa met with little or no support. In the early twentieth century, some architects were commissioned with responsibility for all aspects of new public buildings. Working with skilled artisans, they were able to achieve a complete and unified work of art.

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Places of Travel and Entertainment

Around 1900, the Richelieu & Ontario Navigation Company commissioned the steamers Toronto, Kingston and Montreal to ply the waters of Lake Ontario and the Saint Lawrence. The boats were designed by naval architect Arendt Angstrom of the Bertram Engine Works. The architect Charles Acton Bond designed the interiors and furnishings, and selected and commissioned the decorations. Fred Challener painted decorations for all three boats and subsequently received commissions for restaurants, theatres and hotels, working with a variety of architects.



Regina and Montreal

The Montreal architectural firm Edward & W. S. Maxwell won two important competitions in the first decade of the twentieth century, the Legislative and Executive Building for the newly created province of Saskatchewan in Regina, and the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts). For both projects, they would design all aspects of the buildings, including the plans, elevations, architectural details, metal and stone work, as well as furniture and decorations. They worked with skilled artisans in Montreal and Regina to realize their designs.

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Percy Nobbs

The Scottish-trained architect Percy Nobbs arrived from England in 1903 to assume the second Macdonald Chair of Architecture at McGill University. He had studied at the University of Edinburgh, the Edinburgh School of Art and Rowand Anderson’s School of Applied Art, and apprenticed with the leading Scottish Arts and Crafts architect R. S. Lorimer before working for the London County Council. His training gave him a sound appreciation of handcrafted artisanship, with an emphasis on truth to materials and techniques that Nobbs praised in the early rural architecture of Quebec.

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For an Integration of the Arts: The Domestic Space

The integration of the arts was not confined to the public sphere. It could be seen in a variety of houses across Canada, especially in the homes of artists. In Toronto, leading Arts and Crafts practitioners, such as the architect Eden Smith, the artist George Reid and the designer-decorator Gustav Hahn, would bring painting into architecture and saw artisanship applied to all aspects of their daily lives. Reid promoted the applied arts, as did Eden Smith through the Toronto Architectural 18 Club, which organized exhibitions of architecture and the allied arts. In Montreal, the architects Edward and William Maxwell were able to design and commission all exterior and interior details, including painted and carved decorations, as well as textiles and wall coverings. Percy Nobbs brought his keen appreciation of artisanship to the design and furnishings of his own house, while the businessman Charles Porteous selected the murals, metalwork, furnishings and design of his home on the Île d’Orléans. The quality of craftsmanship, both local and imported, seen in the houses built by the British Columbia architects Samuel Maclure and R. P. S. Twizell bear evidence of a close relationship between the designers, clients and artisans.

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Women’s Art Association of Canada and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild

Toronto’s Woman’s Art Club was organized in 1890 to provide women with models for sketching and rooms for reading and discussion. It became the Woman’s Art Association of Canada two years later and branches were established in a number of Canadian cities (including Montreal in 1894), holding regular exhibitions of paintings and painted china. Out of these came a scheme for the promotion of home arts and handicrafts to train workers, establish standards and develop a market. “Our Handicraft Shop” was opened on Phillips Square in Montreal to provide a regular outlet for the collected material, and in January 1905 the Canadian Handicrafts Guild was established. It paid cash for quality work and offered prizes as an incentive for design excellence and innovative materials. It aimed to preserve immigrant skills as well as discouraging emigration from rural communities to large cities in the States and Canada.



The Promotion of Professional Crafts

The Ontario Society of Artists organized Toronto’s first exhibition of applied art in April 1900 under the presidency of George Reid. Its objective was “to make people aware of the value of beautiful design and craftsmanship so as to create a demand which would move the manufacturer to supply.” In 1904, the first exhibition of the Canadian Society of Arts and Crafts was held in Toronto. Derived from the ideas of William Morris, the origins of the movement were “characterized by a return to simplicity of design, appropriate ornament and the substitution of hand work for machine work wherever it was possible.” By the second exhibition in December 1905, the society had been renamed the Canadian Society of Applied Art and industrial companies were conspicuous in both exhibitions. While those who produced goods marketed by the Woman’s Art Association and the Canadian Handicrafts Guild often remained anonymous, the Society of Applied Art provided the names of the designer and artisan to foster the professional craft workers and skilled artisans for industry.

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The Graphic Arts and Photography

Graphic design and publishing, the occupations of many Toronto artists, were very present in the exhibitions of the Canadian Society of Applied Art. The Toronto Art Students’ League designed and published annual calendars from 1893 to 1904 that combined innovative layout with original Canadian themes. But since copyright for foreign authors rested with publishers abroad, Canadian publishers would not invest in locally designed luxury publications. However, there was a demand for graphic designers for illustrated periodicals and to produce illuminated texts, designs, crests, seals and bookplates and the occasional poster.

Canadian photographers had their own organizations that promoted a variety of approaches to the medium. Some workers were obsessed with the technical aspects of photography while others set out to create, through a mastery of materials, an image of individual expression that communicated a thought, feeling or sentiment. The latter group exhibited in the 1904 Arts and Crafts exhibition and as members of the Studio Club in the 1905 exhibition of Applied Art. In 1907, a major international exhibition of pictorial photography spearheaded by Sidney Carter was held at the Art Association of Montreal.

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Artisanship and Industry

An ongoing tension between the desire to train draughtsman for trades and to develop artists meant that the mechanical and technical requirements sought by many industrialists left little room for creativity. With Canada’s rapidly expanding economy and increased industrial ambitions, the issue of the education of artisans was a matter of great urgency, and the lack of qualified artisans to carry out ideas was especially problematic for architects. Unable to purchase well-designed, Canadian manufacturers, they went abroad. No large architectural project was carried out at the time using solely Canadian resources. Yet, architects did find competent workers, often recent immigrants, to realize their ambitious designs. Firms such as the Bromsgrove Guild (Canada) Ltd., Castle & Son, Robert Mitchell Co. in Montreal and Robert McCausland & Son and Elliott and Son in Toronto were able to supply the required quality. Before the First World War, sculptors working in bronze had to rely on foundries based abroad to cast sculptures, but during the war, Robert Mitchell Co., an architectural foundry, began casting sculpture.

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Planning the Whole

The enormous growth of Canadian cities at the turn of the century resulted in uncontrolled and unplanned growth. Inspired by the City Beautiful movement, Canadian planners sought to link all aspects of the urban fabric for greater coherence, visual variety and civic grandeur. The Province of Quebec Association of Architects created a Municipal Improvement Committee in 1906, and in 1908, it presented five ambitious plans to resolve traffic congestion, create broad boulevards and reclaim urban parkland in Montreal. The Toronto Guild of Civic Art was formed in 1897 as an advisory board to promote and encourage the highest standard of excellence in public works of art and also proposed plans for Toronto. In eastern Canada, the implementation of bold new civic plans often demanded the costly undoing of past errors, but out west, without an existing infrastructure, it seemed that anything could be accomplished. The flurry of urban plans in the years before the First World War were sideswiped, first by the recession of 1913, and then by the outbreak of war.

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Artists, Architects and Artisans across Canada. Places to visit and experience Canadian art from 1890 to 1918



Saturday 9 November from 1 pm to 5 pm
In the Auditorium
Ticket required: $15 (adults), $12 (seniors and students), $10 (members)
A panel of experts examines a period in Canadian Art in which interdisciplinary collaboration in the arts expressed a common vision through brick and stone, wood and metalwork, textiles, furnishings and painted decorations. Coffee and tea will be served during the break.

Complete Details

The symposium tickets are available in person at the box office or over the phone at 1 (888) 541-8888. The local number is (613) 998-8888.

Meet the Curator

Saturday 18 January at 11 am
Free with Gallery admission
Visit the exhibition with curator Charles Hill.


Ticket required: $ 8 (adults), $7 (seniors and students), $6 (members)

Thursday 5 December at 6 pm
In the Auditorium
Rediscover Ottawa and its surroundings with urban planning specialist and historian David Gordon.

David Gordon is a Professor and the Director of the School of Urban and Regional Planning at Queen’s University. He has also taught at Harvard University, the University of Toronto and at the University of Pennsylvania. Before becoming a professor, Mr. Gordon was a professional urban planner for over 15 years. He received the Canadian Institute of Planners' National Award of Distinction in 1991 and in 1992. 

Mr. Gordon holds a Doctorate of Design from Harvard University as well as degrees in Engineering, Urban and Regional Planning, and Business Administration.   He has written widely on urban planning including the books Planning Twentieth Century Capital Cities (Routledge 2006) and Planning Canadian Communities (Nelson 2008 with Gerald Hodge). His latest research includes a book on the history of Canada's capital city and exploration of Canadian suburbs.

Thursday 12 December at 6 pm
In the Lecture Hall
Kathleen M. Fenwick Annual Memorial Lecture
Guest speaker: Rosalind Pepall
The Architect as Artist: “Pictures in an Exhibition”
A look at some of the drawings and watercolours in the National Gallery of Canada’s present exhibition, Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918,  by Canadian architects who believed in the value of good draughtsmanship and delighted in putting pencil or brush to paper.

Adult Art Tour

Friday 20 December at 1:30 pm
Ticket required: $7 + Gallery admission
Discover the exhibition Artists, Architects and Artisans: Canadian Art 1890-1918 and share your insights with others.
One-hour guided tour in English.  
Groups can also schedule a visit upon request through the Group Reservations Office:  613-998-8888 or


Weekends and statutory holidays
Daily December 26–31 and 2–5 January 2014

From 11 am to 4 pm
Free with Gallery Admission
Innovative activities allow families to explore art in the exhibition and creativity in the Garden Court. Participants explore urban design and architecture while creating their own miniature environment.


About the National Gallery of Canada

The National Gallery of Canada, in Ottawa is one of the world's most respected art institutions, renowned for its exceptional collections, revered for its scholarship, and applauded for its unique ability to engage audiences of all ages and all levels of artistic knowledge. Created in 1880, the National Gallery of Canada is among the oldest of Canada's national cultural institutions. View Map


Sponsored by

Ozias Leduc
Boy with Bread, 1892 1899
oil on canvas, 50.7 x 55.7 cm.
Purchased 1969
National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa
Photo © National Gallery of Canada