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

Bulletin 1 (I:1) May 1963

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

by J. Russell Harper, Curator of Canadian Art

Résumé en Français

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


No detailed survey has been made of painting in Ontario during the years immediately preceding Confederation. The Ontario Society of Artists was founded in 1872 and the Royal Canadian Academy in 1880; thereafter both held annual exhibitions, and their catalogues document much of the painting during the last quarter of the 19th century. Earlier catalogues of Toronto art society exhibitions in 1834 (1) and 1847 (2) contain valuable data on the capital's painters in those years. The most important documentary sources on provincial painting in the interim are the Upper Canada Agricultural Society annual exhibition prize lists. (3)

The Upper Canada Agricultural Society was founded in 1846. Its activities were patterned on an earlier similar New York State organization whose exhibitions were well publicized in the Albany periodical The Cultivator. This journal circulated widely in Upper Canada. The New York State society had an art section where, incidentally, a consistent winner in the portrait class was the former Torontonian, Nelson Cook. Centres in which the Upper Canada Agricultural Society exhibitions were held alternated in the earlier years between Toronto, Hamilton, Kingston, Brockville, and Cobourg; all were Lake Ontario ports reached readily by ship from the province's most populous centres of the time; London was host for the first time after extension of rail to that city in 1854. Today the organization continues under revised charters as the Canadian National Exhibition, Toronto. Except possibly the very first year, 1846, for which no records exist, and 1962, displays of painting have been a feature at every exhibition for the 116 year lifetime of the shows. These have the dignity of being the oldest continuous Canadian art exhibitions.

The early provincial shows were the only places where Ontario artists could regularly display their paintings (except in small county fairs which had a limited appeal and awarded smaller prizes). Indeed competition among leading painters was very keen. I. W. L. Forster tells that while he was an apprentice with the portrait painter I. W. Bridgman about 1870 he often visited local studios in Toronto; invariably prize cards from agricultural exhibitions were displayed tastefully. They were both artistic trophies and advertisements directed towards prospective clients. (4)

Early promoters viewed the Upper Canada Agricultural Exhibitions, both as a record of Ontario's artistic achievement, and as an opportunity for local citizens to see good painting at a time when no public art galleries existed. Various comments chronicle the feeble beginnings. At the 1848 Cobourg exhibition, works of

fine art were very meagre, as, from the state of the weather and other causes, might have been expected. (5)

The following year in Kingston the

paintings, drawings, and other works of art, were highly spoken of by those who professed their ability to judge. (6)

Also "several of the paintings" at Niagara in 1850 "were possessed of no ordinary merit". (7) However the first really comprehensive review of an exhibition, seemingly written by Henry Youle Hind, appeared in 1852. (8) He made pertinent comments on the state of provincial art. The survey reads in part:

Of the department of Fine Arts it may be said that the mediocrity of a large proportion of the contributions, evincing that unconsciousness of what is real excellence, which must prevail in a country where there are no Galleries of Art or Schools of Design, was fully redeemed in other portions....The dissemination of an interest in the subject evinced by this list [of exhibitors] is the best part of the case, and we believe that it only needs the formation of a School of Design, to elicit works of art as creditable to Canadian ability as were the more practical departments of the Fair....

The reviewer continues with an important comment on the accessibility of good painting!

We must conclude this suggesting to those artists who are not in the habit of exhibiting on these occasions, that although a shed at the Agricultural Show can never be made a Gallery of Art, it will long be the best opportunity the bulk of the population have for acquiring correct ideas upon the subject; a consideration beyond the value of the prizes should therefore induce them to contribute something upon each occasion to raise the standard of taste, and elicit among the thousands before whom they are displayed, the power and enthusiasm which is only dormant, not dead. The quality of the exhibition in this department must be greatly raised, before a stranger can be referred to it as a criterion of the progress the Fine Arts have made in this country.

Reluctance by leading artists to participate in the exhibitions of the 1850s is easily understandable. The primitiveness of early exhibition buildings and indeed of the whole event can be appreciated from a wood cut of the Niagara grounds in 1850. (9) The sketch was by G. F. Price who had won that year's first prize for water colour landscape; it was commissioned from him by exhibition authorities especially for publication in the Illustrated London News, presumably to publicize the event. Two years later a temporary T-shaped building was erected for the Toronto displays; in it paintings were placed on tables and screens in a jumbled assemblage of wax flowers, false teeth, boxes of cigars, boas, fur caps, two fur coats, and innumerable other articles. (10) Two oil paintings by William G. R. Hind were completely overlooked by the judges. That year amateur and professional paintings were first divided into two classes. Many curious anomalies required rectification such as the 1856 prize list including dentures in the Fine Arts classification; they were removed in later years. More artists began to exhibit when permanent exhibition buildings were erected although in some years, as in 1861, officials found the artistic quality so bad that they felt a preliminary screening to be desirable before displaying everything submitted. Generally, however, the more accomplished provincial artists began to exhibit when permanent exhibition buildings with improved display facilities were erected in various centres including Toronto, London, and Hamilton. Hamilton's "Crystal Palace", for example, was opened at the time of the visit by the Prince of Wales (Edward VII) on his memorable American tour of 1860. (11) In it was a

gallery 54' wide and 64' long, reserved especially for exhibition of works of art. Three of its sides are close-boarded, and the light admitted through the centre of the roof by a lantern light extending the whole length; the glass is frosted, or obscured in order to diffuse the light, (12)

Some artists, one being George Theodore Berthon (13) whose wealthy clientele included judges, politicians and leading citizens, never felt the need of exhibiting in the provincial fairs. Random prize lists show 200 art items at Cobourg, 1855, 262 at Toronto, 1862, and 258 at Kingston, 1867. There was of course a growing British North American interest in artistic and technical affairs promoted in part by the Mechanics' Institutes organized by men like H. Y. Hind; they sponsored popular lectures on all phases of art in their varied programme. One Mechanics' Institute lecture delivered by Robert Foulis at Saint John, N. B., in 1844, was on "Chemistry as applied to the Fine Arts"; it seems to have dealt with the potentialities of photography as a fine art medium. Foulis himself was both a painter and pioneer photographer. (14) One Toronto journal in the 1850s found it practical to publish a long dissertation on a committee report by Faraday and fellow scientists who had investigated the possible injurious effects of gas illumination on Old Master paintings in English public galleries; no injurious fumes were present in the atmosphere. (15)

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