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

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To this point we have considered only those ways in which photography had a direct, and manually technical, contact with painting. Hawksett, for example, appears to be asserting the superiority or desirability of painting over photography, while in fact subverting both. Fraser, on the other hand, seems to have been experimenting with a discrete blend which gave both their due. But there was another way in which photography did service to painting and profoundly influenced it - as a source of pictorial information. The painter Robert Harris (1849-1919) was only one of many who used the photograph as an aide-mémoire. In a letter relating to his proposed portrait of Lieutenant-Governor Joseph Howe - a letter typical of many to his relatives and to friends and relatives of sitters - Harris said, "I only want the head and shoulders. Find  out from some of his friends what is the best picture of him. I suppose Notman is sure to have photos. Then I want the following particulars. What was the colour of his hair? His eyes? General complexion ruddy or pale? Sallow? Dry? Fresh?" (10) The painting of Sir Hugh Allan shown here (fig. 5) is in fact an allusion to a photograph (fig. 6), not an imitation. Certain differences between photograph and painting - additions and omissions - show that Harris was interested in getting an exact facial likeness, and little else. Though Harris was a representationalist, he was no slave to the taste of his age: "I cannot," he said in a letter to his mother, "please sitters who want portraits that look like photographs." (11)

Portrait-painters were not the only artists who used photographs for pictorial information. Landscape-painters like George A. Reid (1860-1947) also relied on the new medium. Reid had been a student at the Central Ontario School of Art when Harris was teaching there and later, at the Pennsylvania Academy of Art, became a pupil of the American painter Thomas Eakins (1844-1916), who himself used photographs as an aid to painting and probably encouraged at least some of his students to do likewise. Reid, in fact, noted beside one of the studies in his personal scrapbook: "Study for logging made in Paris in 1889, after 52 years was finished with the aid of photographs." (12) It is possible that Reid used photographs he himself had taken; there is evidence in his scrap-book that he was a photographer.* 

*It should be said that the interrelation between photography and painting was not at all one-way. The painter John Hammond (1843-1939), who was assistant to the Notman photographer Benjamin Baltzly (act. 1868-1871) on the C. P. R. and Geological Survey Expedition in 1871, was certainly there to make pencil sketches but possibly there to advise what views should be photographed. The American painter Albert Bierstadt is known to have exercised a similar role vis-a-vis his brothers Charles and Edward who were photographers. (14) 

The American Thomas Eakin's use of photographs could well have influenced another of his Canadian pupils, the painter Paul Peel (1860-1892). (13) In Peel's The Painter's Palette (fig. 4), now in the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, an illusionistic reference to an actual photograph shows the aesthetic experience of photography expressed in painting. The cabinet portrait (showing a woman who was probably a personality in the theatre of the time) bears the name of a photographer well-known in France, Adolphe Braun (1811-1877). Peel's Portrait of a Young Boy (fig. 7), in the London, Ontario, Public Library and Art Museum, suggests a reliance on the style and pictorial information of a photograph we have of a young boy with Peel in Peel's studio in Paris (fig. 8). The pose has been slightly altered in the translation, but the alteration would have been a matter simply of studying the back of the print or of studying the negative in front of a light source. The position of the arms has, of course been changed. (15) 

The use of several source-photographs as information for a single painted composition was common. G. Home Russell (1861-1933), for example, was a master of this technique. Russell was employed by Notman as a painter of studio backdrops and backgrounds for composites. His painting Mounts Fox, Dawson, and Donkin, from Asulkan Glacier (see fig. 9) is derived from two Notman photographs (figs. 10 and II). James L. Weston (c. 1815-1896), another of Notman's employees, like Russell, relied on photographs in a literal way for pictorial information, but perhaps more slavishly. His Charlottetown, P. E. I. (see fig. 12) is a good example of this reliance (obvious in the unpainterly way background is as detailed as foreground) and is probably based on a combination of at least two photographs, only one of which (fig. 13), yielding the foreground, has come to our attention. The present location of Russell's Mounts Fox, Dawson and Donkin, from Asulkan Glacier and Weston's Charlottetown, P. E. I. is unknown. It may well be that both these paintings could have been made solely for the purpose of photographic reproduction.*

*Book-illustration, in Canada as elsewhere, was a major outlet for works of photographic provenance. R. Y. Rind (1823-1906), the Canadian naturalist, explorer, and prospector, had chromoxylographs based on the photographs of the surveyor and photographer Humphrey L. Rime (1833-1903) as illustrations in his Canadian Red River and Assiniboine and Saskatchewan Expedition (1860). (Rime accompanied Rind on this expedition in 1857.) The colour illustrations in the books - The Prairie Looking West, Susan - A Swampy-Cree Half-breed, Wigwam, an Ojibway Half-breed, Ojibway Squaw and Papoose, and Freighter's Boat (the source for which yielded a painted lantern-slide as well) - contrast sharply with their sources. Invariably the powerful spatial and tonal qualities of Rime's photographs were lost in the translation.

I am grateful to Mr Richard Ruyda, Curator in the Picture Division of the Public Archives of Canada, for information relating to the life and work of Humphrey L. Hime. Mr Huyda's work on Hime is soon to be published.

Another Notman photograph, Mammoth Spruce Tree, Stanley Park (fig. 14), provided G. Horne Russell with a source of inspiration. A painted photograph, Spruce Tree, Stanley Park (fig. 15), shows slight alteration of the original image, with the more vertical tree to the immediate right of the large trunk having been excluded in the painted version and the tree-trunk itself made wider. The mysterious figure of the man seated beneath the trees at the lower left of the original photograph has been replaced by the figures of a man and woman much smaller in scale. A photograph of this painted photograph, attributed to G. Horne Russell, is housed in the Notman Photographic Archives.

J. Henry Sandham (1842-1910), another of the artists employed by Notman, transferred the techniques of his commercial work into his leisure-time painting more consistently than any of his colleagues. The qualities of light and space peculiar to the sort of composite photograph he made are evident in his paintings Snowshoeing and Tobogganing Winter Scene in Montreal. Evident also is a similarity of subject matter. The composite photograph Skating Carnival has not yet been found, but a photograph of it (fig. 16) and a painting of it (fig. 17) are both in the McCord Museum in Montreal, the former in the Notman photographic Archives. The painted copy, by Sandham and Edward Sharpe (act. 1870), a fellow-worker of Sand ham's, shows a remarkable fidelity to its source - composite and bears no evidence of a layer of paper (Hawksett's procedure, mentioned .previously) on canvas or grid-lines (indicating a photograph squared up like a drawing). 

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