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

Bulletin 20, 1972

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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

by Ann Thomas

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So great is the complexity of the painting Skating Carnival that it is likely that some mechanical or photographic copying device was used to produce it. It seems possible in this case that use of more negatives could be  printed (usually enlarged) on sensitized,  canvas. Such a process - a logical advance over both the camera obscura and camera lucida - was very early described in the photographic press. Photographic News, for example, had reported in 1863 that "M. Disdéri [French photographer, 1819-1890; a celebrated portraitist] announced that he has just been negotiating with an American artist who had found out a means of producing positive pictures on the prepared canvas employed by painters...[the technique] produces a work which has all the merit of photographic accuracy, and at the same time has given [the artist] free scope for his talent." (16) (A few days later, Photographic News (17) was able to report that such a process had been patented by a gentleman in Baltimore as early as 1856. As a matter of fact, a complete set of instructions had already appeared in 1858 in the American Journal of Photography.) (18) 

If this process was widely used in Canada, painters like Sandham and Sharpe were probably reluctant to admit it - just as they were reluctant to admit any use whatever of photography.  While the services photography could render painting were generally acknowledged, a painter who admitted to taking advantage of them would have been frowned upon. It is not yet known whether or not photography was at issue in the minor scandal in Toronto art circles in the mid-1880s in which the well-known watercolourist Daniel Fowler (1810-1894) was accused of plagiarism; but Homer Watson (1855-1936), who had worked in Notman's Toronto studio, defended Fowler to the dealer James Spooner in terms that would suggest that such might have been the case:

I do not think that he [probably a mutual acquaintance, as yet unidentified, who had taken a position against Fowler] holds the opinion strongly of Fowler copying. It is only that he has not given the thing a thought; and no doubt he has a print of a subject he saw of Fowler's or something like it. But what of it? What the devil is the use of painting anything nowadays, anything is liable to be photographed or engraved now, so that the dabbler in paint can gabble, "Hello, here is a photograph of Watson's subject, he copies!" (19)

In a review of the first exhibition of the Art Students League in Toronto in March 1872 a critic remarked: "We cannot praise Mr. Halford too highly for his steady determination in painting from life instead of adopting, as many do now, the use of the photograph." (20) The painter, William Sawyer (1820-1889), was quoted by The Gazette (Montreal) in 1872 as disapproving, for technical reasons, of the practice of painting over photographs. "Mr. Sawyer, "remarked a columnist, "does not ignore photography as a valuable assistant but will not tolerate the use of it as a foundation for an oil painting...In the case of the semi-photograph pictures, the paint is thinly laid on with a great deal of oil and it is a certain consequence that in the course of time the picture suffers by deterioration." (21)

Whatever the critical and technical case, however, a great many Canadian painters of note were involved in one way or another with photography: the painter James Duncan (1806-1881), for example, was a partner in the firm Young and Duncan in Montreal; William Raphael (1833-1914) was employed by the photographer A. B. Taber (c. 1832-after 1865) in Montreal after 1863-1864; Otto Jacobi (1812-1901), Adolphe Vogt (1843-1871), and Charles Way (1835-1919) were all employed at the Notman studios in Montreal for varying lengths of time, while Robert Gagen (1848-1926), Horatio Walker (1858-1938), and Frederick Vemer (1836-1928) were employed at the Notman studios in Toronto. (22) There are many other Canadian painters known to have been involved in photography to a greater or lesser extent, but the details of their involvement are too scanty to warrant mention here. 

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