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

Bulletin 20, 1972

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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Museum, McGill University, 
Montreal Notes on the Relationship of 
Photography and Painting in Canada, 1860-1900

by Ann Thomas

Résumé en français

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With the invention of the camera obscura in the sixteenth century and the invention of the photographic process in the nineteenth, traditional patterns of visual perception and pictorial expression underwent dramatic transformations. The American scholar and critic, Van Deren Coke, has in fact suggested that artists "begin to see the world through the lens and not so much through their eyes," adding that "the single lens does things to space, does things to the artist's perception." (1) The vital and often curious interrelation between photography and painting has been documented for British and American art of the nineteenth century, but little more than one-paragraph references - often speculative ones at that - exist for Canadian art of the same period.

In Canada as elsewhere, the influence of photography on painting came about through such activities as the actual operation of a camera, the developing of prints, the making of composite photographs, and the painting of photographs. All these activities, singly or in combination, had sometimes profound effects on painters, giving them new compositional concepts, making them aware of photographic tonality, encouraging overall rendition of detail, and prompting a move away from painterly principles of spatial relationships. These interrelations were most evident in Canada in the work of those artists employed in the Montreal studio of the photographer William Notman (1826-1891) as painters of studio backdrops, colourists, and painters of the backgrounds for composite photographs; and in the work of those painters associated with Notman's Toronto studio through their membership in the Ontario Society of Artists. (2)

The dilemma of the nineteenth-century portrait-painter - and thus of the nineteenth-century Canadian portrait-painter- is well known. After 1839, as photography developed, portrait-painters were increasingly usurped in function by a mechanico-chemical process and had to re-define their role in the face of an accomplished technological fact. This re-definition began with a recognition of the failure of the camera to provide a flattering likeness of a sitter; though the nineteenth-century public was vociferous in its demand for faithful representation, it was not without its vanity. Only the subtle hand of a portrait-painter could soften edges and erase blemishes which a camera made all too apparent.

It is not surprising, then, that the colouring of photographs was one of the most important commercial tasks that fell to such skilled Canadian portrait-painters as John A. Fraser (1838-1898).  Fraser began to work for William Notman in Montreal in 1860,and the four examples of his painted photograph portraits in the Notman Archives show that he laid his watercolours over the pale photographic image as though it were only a preliminary drawing. Photographic line and tone speak for themselves under a very light and transparent layer of colour and demonstrate Fraser's sensitivity to the photographic image. The surface-quality of the photograph is respected, and the transition from it to the painted surface is not distracting. Fraser's Portrait of William Theodore Benson (fig. I), however, is not simply a painted photograph but a painted composite made from a Notman source-photograph (fig. 2). In the source, the boy is being held by his mother, who is seated in a chair on which the child's right arm rests. In the finished work, the image of the boy, after being excerpted, enlarged, and re-positioned, is set in front of a tree, and his right arm is made to rest on a painted drum. (The glass negative of figure 2 was used to obtain the enlargement for figure I.)

Even in Fraser's leisure-time painting, distinct as it was from his commercial work, we see the influence of the "photographic aesthetic" as recently defined by Elizabeth Lindquist-Cock: "The photographic aesthetic means various things depending on the process used. In general we might cite as typical of photography: objectivity, the arbitrary cutting-off of foreground objects as in the snapshot effect, a subdued range of lines, harsh lighting, a sense of stopped time, etc. ..." (3) We do not know whether Fraser, as a painter, derived his images from photographs, or whether he himself was involved in the mechanics of photography; conflicting statements on the subject have been recorded. The report on Canadian participation in the International Exhibition at Philadelphia in 1876 notes: "We give still more credit to Mr Fraser, the Superintendent of the Art Department at the Centennial for the many faithful and reliable photographs." (4) The implication is the same at another point in the same report: "In a series of cabinet portraits from Notman and Frazer [sic] of Toronto, of which firm Mr Notman of Montreal is a partner but Mr. Frazer we presume the active photographer, we have some unusually fine pictures and novel effects." (5) Yet a clipping from an unidentified newspaper, in the Fraser file at the Art Gallery of Ontario, says, "It must be emphasized that Mr Frazer was not himself a photographer but devoted himself entirely to colour work." (6) 

In contrast to Fraser, the Canadian painters Samuel C. Hawksett (act. 1856-1903) and Joseph Dynes (1825-1897) must have been involved in the actual processes of photography. (Dynes's knowledge and use of photography could in fact have been extensive: from 1857 on he was a partner in three different photographic firms in Montreal and Quebec, and worked for both Ellison [act. 1852-1879] and Livernois [act. 1860-1861].) (7) Hawksett and Dynes opened their studio in Montreal in the early 186os, advertising "Photographs taken in all sizes and painted in Oil or Water Colours." (8) One product of their apparently brief collaboration is a painted photograph - Portrait of Alphonse Poitras - now in the collection of the Château de Ramezay in Montreal. Several portraits similar in technique, by Hawksett alone, have come to light; one, Master John Wiseman (1873), a small painted Notman photograph, gives an indication that Hawksett may have worked for Notman after his venture with Dynes ended. 

Hawksett, unlike Fraser, attempts the complete transformation of the photographic image. He does so in two ways: first, by pasting the photographic paper on canvas and thus altering its physical characteristics; second, by handling the painting-over with little regard for the linear and tonal qualities of a photograph. The source-photograph, in short, has been made to look as much like a painting as possible, and only the evidence of the layer of paper and certain surface characteristics of a painted photograph belie it. (9)  Another of Hawksett's works, however, the Portrait of Mme Charles Leclair (fig. 3), shows the rigid pose and hard-edge quality more characteristic of the painted photograph in general. 

Next Page transformation of photographic image

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