National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada

Bulletin 1 (I:1) May 1963

Annual Index
Author & Subject

A Study of Art at the Upper Canada 
Provincial Exhibitions
Ontario Painters 1846-1867

by J. Russell Harper, Curator of Canadian Art

Pages  1  |  2  |  3  |  4  |  5  |  6  |  7 


Stylistically, most paintings of consequence in these pre-Confederation exhibitions followed the early victorian English tradition. Many exhibitors, other than amateurs, who in fact themselves were either born in the British Isles or were children of immigrants, came to Canada as young practising artists during the mid-19th century during the British influx. Bull, Fowler, Price, Fleming, and Meyer emigrated in the 1840s, Cresswell, Whale, Carpendale, Hind, Armstrong, James Griffiths, and Wandesford in the l850s, and Martin, Fowler, Millard, and Forbes during the following decade. Teachers of several are recorded: Meyer studied under Bartolozzi; Fowler worked under I. D. Harding, watercolourist, as well as Harding's engraver-collaborator, Hullmandel; Whale's portrait style was achieved by copying Sir Joshua Reynolds canvases in London, and he certainly also knew the landscapes of Constable; Cresswell studied with W. E. Cook and Clarkson Stanfield, R. A., a noted marine painter, and whose sea and sky effects Cresswell imitated; Millard attended Bristol College under F. Franks and the Royal Academy School, London, under the youthful Sir I. Poynter; Martin attended South Kensington School, London, under Humphries. Forbes studied both at the Royal Academy and South Kensington, while James Griffiths learned flower painting by decorating china in the Potteries of England. Kane, Irwin and Sawyer, all reared in Canada, studied first in the United States and then went to England and the continent; Verner in contrast went directly from this country to Heatherley's School, London. Public taste favoured the English styles, and the prize lists reflect English fashions. Much prominence is given to such subject matter as animal painting: the contemporary English Landseer was astonishing all England with his virtuosity and his sentimental paintings. The animal chalk drawings of T. C. Carpendale, a youthful English artist, excited great interest at the 1850 and 1851 exhibitions; as an added premium the exhibition committee engaged him to sketch the prize livestock in 1850. The superabundance of water colour painting is directly due to predominance of the English tradition in Ontario and a preference for English tastes.

United States influence, in contrast to that of England, was virtually non-existent except in a few isolated cases. The most important exception was Kane who undoubtedly became interested in recording the native Indians through interest in Catlin while visiting south of the border; he seems to have modelled his western tour of 1846-7 after Catlin's more lengthy one in the United States. Bridgman studied in Buffalo, and Whale picked up certain American mannerisms. Some artists like Wandesford and Hawksett arrived in Canada from the British Isles via the United States. Occasional exhibitors, Whitefield, Loeffler, and probably Polak, were Americans but virtually itinerants and seem to have remained only briefly in Canada; probably the two latter were chiefly photographers and men of no great consequence. It is necessary to wait at least another generation to find marked American influence in painting in Ontario; it comes when work by men like Homer Watson paralleled paintings by the Hudson River School.

French influence among the exhibitors was non-existant although Berthon in Toronto was trained completely in France. Quebec painters, more closely allied with the French tradition, were painting their most important work at this time in oil and pastel; this is a marked contrast to the water colours in Ontario. The former mediums were in the French tradition, the latter in the English. Only Jacobi, a Montreal resident, worked in the German tradition, although Berlin and Munich influences made themselves felt at a slightly later date.


This survey has set out to do four things. It has attempted to describe briefly the beginnings of the oldest Canadian art exhibitions and its significance in the local Ontario (or Upper Canadian) community. Secondly, it has isolated some popular Canadian attitudes towards painting and the criterion for artistic evaluation during the immediate pre-Confederation years as prompted by prize list entries and reviews during the early exhibitions. Thirdly, the prize lists are like a framework, naming some of the province's most active contemporary painters, their media and subject-matter. Unfortunately no titles of exhibited paintings are named; an occasional one appears in exhibition reviews. However, by assembling works by various exhibitors painted at the same date and with subject-matter specified in the prize lists, it is possible to assess the local pre-Confederation achievement by hypothetically reconstructing the exhibitions. Perhaps this study will stimulate further clarification of this artistic era by locating works suitable for a recreated "retrospective exhibition" of the years in question. Such a more detailed study would have considerable artistic interest from a historical viewpoint. Previously travellers, army men, and itinerants were Upper Canada's principal painters other than in Toronto (regarded until 1847 as the only centre of real importance); hereafter widely scattered pioneer settlers of artistic competence were to establish the province's real painting roots. Finally, this analytical survey has made some attempt to define the various artistic styles found in the early exhibitions.

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