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

Annual Bulletin 8, 1984-1985

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Author & Subject

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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Chalon was well known in his day as an animal painter and was favoured by royalty and aristocrats. Early in his career (by 1793) (14) he was appointed animal painter to the Duchess of York and later also to the Duke of York. Over the years he did numerous paintings of dogs for the duchess and of horses for the duke. (15) Chaton eventually became animal painter to the Prince Regent (afterwards George IV) and to William IV. Influenced by George Stubbs, although of lesser talent, Chaton was popularly admired for his ability to record the features of domesticated creatures with fidelity, and his out-put was immense. (16) In spite of the popular acclaim of his contemporaries, in modern times his art has been rather neglected. Art historians have been inclined to disdain his specialty, even though a long favoured and very traditional one in Britain, as a lesser category of painting. That view is now undergoing re-evaluation. Still, a defining feature of this type of painting is its pervasive prosaism: it is essentially animal portraiture.

Whereas Chalon has a stature of sorts - even if only in a genre of secondary rank - William Marshall Craig, on the other hand, is relatively unknown. Yet he achieved enough recognition to be appointed in 1810 painter in watercolours to Queen Charlotte, as well as miniature painter to the Duke and Duchess of York. (17) Portraits and figural subjects were his forte.

The patronage of Craig and Chalon by the Duchess of York would seem, however, to have been only occasional - at least her death in 1820 appears not to have diminished the output of either artist. The contrary may have been true for Thielcke. No firm record of his activities from that year until his presence in Quebec City in 1832 has been uncovered. However, the Canada East Census for 1851 records that Thielcke had a daughter who was born in Scotland some twenty-six years earlier, so it may have been that Thielcke spent time there in the 1820s.

When Thielcke arrived in Quebec City, he was an intruder of sorts on an artistic scene already adequately served by two local painters, Joseph Légaré (1795-1855) and Antoine Plamondon (1804-95). Légaré received Thielcke amiably, and the two maintained kindly relations thenceforth. Plamondon's reaction was the converse. An irascible and vainglorious individual, he viewed Thielcke's potential rivalry with acute apprehension. It was not long before he began to subject him to periodic outbursts of vituperation, aiming to affirm his own ascendancy in what was a relatively small market. Plamondon's position there was by no means absolutely assured; he himself had arrived in Quebec City only in 1830, returning after four years study in France. His fears notwithstanding, his volatile response came to be characteristic. Over the years many other artists, particularly new arrivals, of tell elicited impassioned criticism from him, warranted or not.

At first Thielcke's rivalry was restricted to portraiture, as is indicated by his earliest advertisements. In The Quebec Mercury of 13 November 1832 (p. 3), he addresses the Lower Canadian public with the announcement: "Portrait painter to her late Royal Highness the Duchess of York, will resume his profession as an artist, and paint portraits in oil and miniatures." Portraits were in fact his artistic mainstay throughout his residency in Quebec City, where he lived from 1832 until 1854 or 1855, except for occasional working visits to other urban centres such as Montreal and New York City (the longest such trip was in 1841-42 in New York City). By 1855 he had relocated to Chicago, where he was still living after 1870 (18) and where he evidently continued to paint portraits. (19)

The year 1835 marked a significant departure in Thielcke's activity in Quebec City. Raving established himself as a portrait painter, he ventured then to capture some of the large trade in religious painting. Unfortunately, none of these pictures is known to have survived. In The Quebec Gazette of 30 January 1835 (p. 3), he advertised "two original pictures which he has composed - The subject of one is the Crucifixion of Our Saviour, of the other the Holy Family." Both were offered for raffle. Later that year, Thielcke also exhibited a St. John the Baptist. According to the report in Le Canadien (Quebec City) of 19 August 1835 (p. 2):

L'artiste a choisi le moment où le saint précurseur batise [sic] Jésus-Christ dans les eaux du Jourdain. N'étant pas connaisseur, nous ne pouvons parler que de l'impression générale que ce tableau a produite sur nous; elle a été des plus agréables. (20)
Its reception was favourable. The real significance of this painting, as the columnist does not fail to note, is that it was an original work of art: 
Il est de l'intérêt de l'art que les ouvrages de peintures originaux d'une certaine importance ne passent pas inaperçus. C'est le premier ouvrage de cette sorte que M. Thielke a entrepris depuis qu'il est dans le pays... (21)

From this passage it can be concluded that The Crucifixion and The Holy Family were earlier works that Thielcke had brought with him to Canada. The St. John the Baptist was his first Canadian religious work. He was not, of course, unaccustomed to dealing with history painting, as can be seen from the religious and mythological subjects that he had exhibited at the Royal Academy and the British Institution between 1807 and 1815. (22) However, the procedure of inventing one's own compositions signified a bold new contribution to religious painting in Lower Canada. Religious paintings by Lower Canadian artists during this period were invariably copies, or at best pastiches, of well-known European paintings, as is demonstrated by both Légaré and Plamondon. (23)

Next Page | St. John the Baptist

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