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

Annual Bulletin 8, 1984-1985

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Henry D. Thielcke: A recently Found 
Portrait and some Reflections on 
Thielcke's Links with the English School

by Ross Fox

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It also demonstrates a clear connection between contemporary portraiture in Britain and in Lower Canada. Thielcke shows himself as still belonging to the English School, whereas Plamondon, a pupil of the French Academician Jean-Baptiste Paulin Guérin, took pride in referring to himself as an "élève de l'École française." Strictly speaking, however, Plamondon's style is a highly personalized version of its attested French antecedents. In the manner of the followers of Lawrence, Thielcke's technique verges on the painterly, while retaining something of the short, delicate brushwork belonging to his activity as a miniaturist. There is a softness, even bluntness, in the modelling, a warmth in the tonality, and a use of dark shadows. Plamondon's approach at that time tended to be more classical. The lighting is more diffuse, the colours cooler, and the modelling of forms and details are often meticulously worked and comparatively dry.

But the contradistinction between these two artists is nowhere more evident than in their approach to women as subjects. Here their differences emanate as much from individual inclination as from any specific European influence. The sitter in the portrait by Thielcke glows amidst sedate refinement. She is imbued with a charm and a grace, and breathes a warm intimacy, even a quiet sensuality, that again betokens a debt to Lawrence. In a contrasting example painted in the same year - Julie Bruneau Papineau and Her Daughter Ezilda (fig. 5) - Plamondon presents an image of chilling primness with an overlay of antiseptic prettiness. (32) Moreover, the whole is suffused with an air of self-conscious propriety and respectability. Other contemporary portraits by Plamondon are of a similar stamp, for instance, the portrait of Mary Ann Wragg in the Art Gallery of Ontario. (33) These paintings advertise an exaggerated claim to social worth by colonial arrivistes, which was not always respected by the community at large. Thus, it is with derision that a contributor to Le Populaire (Montreal) of 4 August 1837 (p. 4) comments with specific reference to the portrait of Madame Papineau:

Il paraît que cette dame, toute occupée des projets futurs de son illustre époux, a voulu voir si une couronne siérait bien à sa tête, et elle a eu soin de se faire peindre avec un peigne qui lui donne tout l'air de porter le diadème. Bien des gens, en voyant cette peinture s'écrient c'est encore trop tôt! mais, comme l'a dit un grand homme, les choses vont vite en Canada. (34)

Her husband, of course, was the politician Louis-Joseph Papineau.

Thielcke's group portrait has a similar air of social aspiration, yet strikes a more felicitous chord in the easier and more subtle ' 'English ', manner. His painting is a praise of feminine loveliness in a stylish lady of seeming gentle station. His sitter is manifestly in touch with the current trends of London couture, despite residence in the colonies - a fact most evident by the short, relatively small sleeves of her dress. In the early summer of 1836, sleeves suddenly diminished in size; before then they were large and ballooned, like those worn by Madame Papineau. (35) Allowing several months for the transmission of this style to America, one might surmise that Thielcke executed his painting later in the year. Furthermore, a notice in The Quebec Mercury of 29 October 1836 (p. 3) announces Thielcke's return from a visit to New York City. The extent of this trip is uncertain, but could the Ottawa portrait perhaps date afterwards?

Only one other painting by Thielcke from the year 1836 is presently known. It is a portrait of Archibald Acheson, 2d Earl of Gosford, who was Governor-in-Chief of British North America from 1835 until 1838 (fig. 6). (36) Lord Gosford is painted three-quarters length, in uniform and erectly seated, his head and upper torso strictly frontal. The fundamental conception is of a stiff reserve and formality coupled with a concentration on essential insignia - in effect, public declarations of power and authority. Stateliness prevails in the picture, which falls within the confines of official portraiture. A particularly austere dignity is conveyed by the abstract patterning of vertical braided tassels, which reappear throughout the composition (the large tassel at upper right and the tasseled fringes of the drapery at the left, of the governor's epaulets, and of the upholstered arms of the chair). The employ of formal devices is almost artificial in its overplay, yet lends at least the semblance of a powerful iconic quality.

Without question The Earl of Gosford is the finest of Thielcke's Canadian single portraits yet to come to light. Only seven of his portraits from after this time are known, spanning some two decades. Except for one, all treat individuals.

As a whole, they are generally rather dismal half-length productions of modest formulation, with their subjects often whelmed by heavy shadows, but for the most part a proper appreciation is impeded by their pitiful state of preservation, which owes something to a faulty artistic technique - for instance, Thielcke's excessive use of bitumen. (This is a further trait reflecting current English practice, bitumen being much used by Lawrence in his later years to effect very dark, even blackish tonalities, particularly in clothing and backgrounds. Through Lawrence's influence, its use became a mark of much English portraiture of the 1820s and 1830s.)

The only other Canadian painting by Thielcke that is known is a group portrait painted in 1840, The Presentation of a Newly Elected Chief of the Huron Tribe, Canada now in the collection of the Château Ramezay, Montreal. This work greatly appealed to Thielcke's contemporaries and was reproduced in a popular coloured lithograph published by H. Lynch, Day & Haghe in 1841. (37) Even now it is his best known painting, but its celebrity has always been due to its subject; as a work of art it is less meritorious. Above all, Thielcke had difficulty in composing a full-length multi-figured group - admittedly a demanding assignment. Perhaps more than any other factor, it is the limitations of this particular painting that have inhibited a fair estimation of Thielcke as an artist.

Do the later paintings reflect a degeneration of Thielcke's artistry, or even a change in clientele? Do they signify artistic atrophy induced by a relatively sterile colonial environment? Those are questions for future exploration. Let it be said that a similar decline can be detected among many of the followers of Lawrence in Britain during this same period. (38)

The fortunate discovery of the Ottawa Portrait of a Woman and Child, which contrasts so clearly with these lesser works, now allows us to see the considerable mastery of which Thielcke was capable. The portrait may prove to be an anomaly within his Canadian oeuvre, yet it has considerable significance in suggesting the potential of a keen rivalry with Plamondon in talent. Whether conditions in Lower Canada were conducive to the full exploitation of such talent is doubtful: the fact remains that Plamondon was the fashionable portraitist of the day, while Thielcke was in lesser demand.

Considered in other terms, the Ottawa portrait reveals that Thielcke offered a definite stylistic alternative to Plamondon's portraiture. It shows him four years after his arrival in Canada still drawing his primary inspiration, even if by then outmoded, from the English school. His portraiture stands in contrast to the distantly French-influenced and more personalized portrait style of Antoine Plamondon, and to an even greater degree to the naive attainments of still other provincial limners such as Jean-Baptiste Roy-Audy. Certainly, the discovery of the Ottawa portrait demands a fuller examination and a reassessment of Thielcke's role as a portraitist in Lower Canada, a role that has been almost completely neglected up to the present time.

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