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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When Thielcke exhibited the St. John the Baptist, Plamondon was quick to recognize the implications therein. He attempted to foil his rival by an acerbic review in Le Canadien of 2 September 1835 (p. 2), written under the pseudonym "Des Amateurs." His criticisms were numerous. He regarded the figure of Christ as a statue "sans mouvement, sans expression et sans caractère." The Baptist showed the same fault. Moreover,

Ce qu'il y a de plus ignoble, c'est de lui voir faire la grimace au Sauveur. Le maintien du personnage de St. Jean a le caractère de la lâcheté et de l'indifférence; rien de plus monstrueux et de plus ridicule que de le voir baptisant Jésus de la main gauche, et s'appuyant paresseusement la main droite sur la hanche. Sa colombe est des plus malheureuses; elle est vue en raccourci et se traîne sur une superficie absolument plate; la lumière rétrécie qui passe derrière sa queue, produit un effet que toute personne devinera facilement...Ce que nous venons de dire ne regarde que la composition. Le dessin des figures, à le considérer dans chaque objet en particulier, est assez passable; mais l'ensemble en est absolument mauvais. La tête du Christ penche tellement sur l'épaule gauche, que le cou paraît être rompu. Les draperies, qui doivent jouer un rôle marquant dans un tableau historique, sont très mal disposées; les plis en sont tous trop réguliers et trop arron dis. Malheureusement, M. l'éditeur, le colori [sic] ne vaut pas mieux que le reste. Aucune richesse dans cette scène qui a dû se passer en plein jour, et être brillante et lumineuse, ne relève la mauvaise composition et le triste dessin des figures; une teinte roussâtre domine dans tout l'ensemble. Serait-ce que l'auteur aurait craint la variété des couleurs, si nécessaire et si agréable dans un tableau, qu'il n'a employé partout que du rouge? Quoi de plus désagréable, de plus monotone et de plus ennuyeux que cet effet. (24)
The concluding sentence of this lengthy diatribe is especially sarcastic:
N'ayant certainement à coeur que la vérité, la justice et l'avancement des bons principes dans les arts, si nous avions trouvé quelques parties dignes d'attention dans ce tableau, nous n'eussions pas fait difficulté de leur prodiguer des éloges et de les présenter au public sous le jour le plus favorable. (25)
It is difficult to measure the full impact of Plamondon's criticism. No religious paintings executed by Thielcke after this time are known. If, as is frequently suggested, Thielcke was driven to abandon such work, it was no doubt a regressive event for the history of religious painting in Quebec. (26) Certainly Plamondon was regarded by his compatriots as the outstanding painter in Lower Canada, and his opinions on art would have been heeded. Yet Thielcke himself was not without stature. Both he and Plamondon were the only artists privileged to have their studios in the House of Assembly (the Château Haldimand), an honour accorded them by Louis-Joseph Papineau, the Speaker of the Legislative Assembly of Lower Canada, that extended over several years until 1838. (27) How is this privilege to be interpreted if not as a mark of semi-official favour, or even sponsorship?

It was at this time that Plamondon was awarded the single most important religious commission of the day: the monumental series of fourteen paintings of the Stations of the Cross for the Church of Notre-Dame in Montreal. That enterprise absorbed most of Plamondon's energies from 1836 until 1839, (28) which left other commissions, especially in portraiture, open to Thielcke.

The earliest Canadian work by Thielcke that has yet surfaced is a shoulder-length pencil sketch of a young woman from the year 1835. It is probably correctly titled The Maid of Athens (fig. 3). (29) The following year yielded the remarkable portrait of an unidentified woman and child now at the National Gallery of Canada (fig. 1), the earliest of Thielcke's Canadian paintings that still survives. (30) It is inscribed on the back of the canvas in a manner that was almost customary for Thielcke: Hy. D. Thielcke Pinxit. 1836 Quebec. / Historical Portrait Painter to H. R. H. The late Duchess of York (fig. 4). The history of this double portrait is obscure, except for its having been handed down in the Lindsay family, descendants of William Burns Lindsay of Quebec City. Just how the sitters may be related to him is unknown.

The principal figure portrayed here is a youngish woman, possibly in her late twenties or early thirties, who is posed on a settee. Her right arm gently embraces a small child, who sits raised up beside her on a white fur covering that extends behind the mother to the right side of the picture. The woman is depicted three-quarters length in a black satin gown with décolletage and short puffed sleeves within wide ribboned over-sleeves of a delicately patterned gauze. Her face is enframed by brown corkscrew curls. The child wears a red dress or long tunic, and raises a pink (a Dianthus) to the woman's face in a gesture beckoning her to sniff a sweet fragrance. (31)

A crimson drapery screens the portrait group from behind and an exquisite landscape passage opens on the right. The landscape is of Northern aspect and is treated with sfumato effects, the distant hills being thinly obscured in the dense clouds of a partially overcast sky. This scenery, with its blue, green, and yellow-orange, provides a pleasing relief to what would otherwise be a monotonous bicolour palette of reds and black combined with darkish, almost colourless, tonalities.

The woman's face, while a portrait, answers to a standard of beauty that was favoured by fashionable women of the time. Her features seem somewhat idealized, and a similar hint of speciousness is traceable elsewhere in the depiction. Elegance and gentility are accentuated in this rather ostentatious display of wealth and the latest high fashion, with its conspicuously placed jewellery and the dominant spread of rich and varied fabrics. Yet the aspect of show is mitigated by an enchanting informality in the overall conception.

The character of the painting is quite English, with nothing to suggest a colonial origin. More particularly, it is of a cast associated with a group of middling portraitists working under the spell of Sir Thomas Lawrence, yet of distinctly finite pictorial imagination, who were active in the decade from about 1825. Such portraits are sometimes, for lack of a name, erroneously ascribed to George Henry Harlow (1787-1819), a more talented and earlier follower of Lawrence.

This group portrait is of immense value for understanding Thielcke's art. Beyond question, it is the masterwork of his known oeuvre and clearly establishes him as an artist of consequential talents, by colonial standards - something that had not really been apprehended before the painting's discovery .With regard to quality, the work marks Thielcke as a strong rival to Plamondon during the 1830s, though Plamondon was then undoubtedly the most sought after portraitist in Lower Canada, patronized by both English- and French-speaking clientele.

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