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

Bulletin 22, 1973

Annual Index
Author & Subject

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Foreign Art at the Canadian National Exhibition 1905-1938

by Sybille Pantazzi

Résumé en français

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Author's note: 

The abbreviations for institutions referred to throughout this article are listed here.

A. G. O. Art Gallery of Ontario

A. G. T. Art Gallery of Toronto

C. N. E. Canadian National Exhibition

C. N. E. (D. F. A.) Canadian National Exhibition (Department of Fine Arts)

C. W. M. Canadian War Memorials

M. T .C. L. Metropolitan Toronto Central Library O. S. A. Ontario Society of Artists

O. S. A. (A. R.) Ontario Society of Artists (President's [Annual] Report)

R. C. A. Royal Canadian Academy

Today the idea of the superior status of the avant-garde still holds sway, and innovation in painting is often more highly prized than quality. At the same time, the revival of interest in and re-evaluation of Academic and Salon art of the nineteenth century has been conspicuous in recent years. The emphasis on avant-garde and experimental art that is associated with the oldest international exhibitions such as the Venice Biennale and the Pittsburgh International (founded respectively in 1895 and 1896) did not in fact emerge until after the Second World War; and it has generally been forgotten that those exhibitions, like the Canadian National Exhibition in Toronto, were mainly dedicated, from their inception until 1939, to showing representative works by established artists both native and foreign. Indeed many of the same artists and sometimes the same works were exhibited in Venice, Pittsburgh, and Toronto in about the same years.

Now that the variety and calibre of the works included in the art exhibitions of the C. N. E.* from 1905 to 1938 can be seen in some perspective, a survey of the foreign art exhibited during those years shows that the Art Commissioners of the C. N. E. not only selected works by established living artists, but also clung to works by the preceding generations and made some attempt to keep up with the avant-garde. For this reason a survey of these hybrid exhibitions, especially in view of the nostalgia which influences taste at present, seems timely.

A. Y. Jackson once wrote that Tom Thomson "had seen nothing in the way of art except the second-rate paintings which came to the C. N. E. in Toronto." (1) This remark indicates that, for many Canadians at the time, the C. N. E. presented one of the few opportunities to see foreign works without going abroad. It also suggests that a study of the influence of these exhibitions on Canadian artists might well yield interesting results.

The following account of the international exhibitions held at the 
C. N. E. is an attempt to document what was, for better or worse, a reflection of the taste of the time and not a negligible aspect of the cultural climate in Toronto during the first three decades of this century.

The prototype of an industrial fair combined with an art exhibition was of course the Great Exhibition held in London in 1851. After the Great Exhibition, "Crystal Palaces," imitating Paxton's famous one, were erected both in Toronto and in New York. The glass and iron Crystal Palace in Toronto was designed by two civil engineers, Fleming and Schreiber, and built in 1858. In 1879, when the Toronto Industrial Exhibition was incorporated, the Palace was moved to Exhibition Park on the shores of Lake Ontario - the present site of the C. N. E. - and art exhibitions were, at first, held in a room in that building (fig. I).

The financial success of the annual Toronto Industrial Exhibition (renamed the Canadian National Exhibition in 1904) led to the erection of two art galleries within three years - in 1902 and again in 1905. Because more funds for art exhibitions and purchases of works of art were available from that source than from any other in Toronto, the significance for the Toronto (and Canadian) art scene of the erection of the gallery of 1905 at the C. N. E. cannot be over-estimated.

The need for an adequate gallery at the Toronto Industrial Exhibition was eloquently put forth in a pamphlet issued by the Ontario Society of Artists in 1899: Reasons for a New Art Gallery at the Industrial Exhibition. It contained the following description of how the pictures were displayed in the Crystal Palace: 

One large square room and some four or five hundred pictures, oil, water colours, old masters and new, closely hung together, robbing each other of the good points they possess, so much so that it has not been believed that they were the same pictures shown at the Society's Annual Exhibition, and still less, that quite a number of them had been exhibited at the Royal Academy and the Paris Salon.

The Chicago World's Fair of 1893 provided a further stimulus: "a vast number of our people realized there what an Art Exhibition could be." (3) Chicago provided a model for a building as well, as can be seen from the schematic plans and views of two galleries included in the O. S. A. pamphlet, both of them in the classicizing Beaux-Arts style which was So conspicuous a feature of Chicago's architecture.

The O. S. A.'s suggestions rapidly produced results: in 1901 the Toronto Industrial Exhibition Association passed a by-law for the erection of a new gallery. (4) The design, which was entrusted to a local architect, Beaumont Jarvis, was loosely based on the second of the two plans proposed by the O. S. A. (fig. 2). But it was rather more compressed than the O. S. A.'s suggested building, distinctly less advanced, and overtly Palladian - complete with four porticos, three of which were blind - even though it omitted the Villa Rotonda's dome (fig. 3). The Cost of this frame and plaster building was $ 8,000; that is to say $ 2,000 less than the grant approved, which would have provided a brick building. (5) Although the building was still full of workmen and littered with rubbish, the first exhibition was held there in 1902. (6)

Next Page1905

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