The collection of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada comprises a broad range of work representing artistic practices that date from the early 18th century in New France through to the early 1990s.
A significant collecting area in pre-confederation art is the Henry Birks Collection of Canadian Silver, donated in 1979. Supplemented by additional purchases and donations, this collection includes works by Jacques Pagé (dit Quercy), the first Québec-born silversmith, Robert Cruickshank, and the largest collection of works by Laurent Amiot held in a public institution.
The NGC’s collection of pre-confederation paintings includes significant examples of 18th-century portraiture by Antoine Plamondon, Joseph Légaré, Theophile Hamel, William Berczy and Robert Field among others. Outstanding works of 19th-century landscape and marine painting include Robert Whale’s View of Hamilton (1853) and John O’Brien’s The Frank off George's Island, Halifax (c. 1856). Additionally, Robert C. Todd’s Marine (1855), acquired in 2008, is the only known work from this important artist’s Toronto period.
A significant representation of works by Cornelius Krieghoff includes three small-scale landscapes of incomparable quality and physical condition (The Passing Storm, Saint-Ferréol, 1854; The Saint Anne Falls, 1855; and The Saint Anne Falls near Quebec from Above and Looking Upward, 1854), as well as the artist’s only known self-portrait.
The National Gallery of Canada’s collection has grown with contributions from Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, which was founded in 1880. When an artist is elected a Royal Academician, he or she deposits what is known as a “Diploma Work” in the Royal Canadian Academy collection, which have been added to that of the Gallery. Some of the earliest examples include Lucius O’Brien’s Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity (1880) and Charlotte Schreiber’s The Croppy Boy (1879).
Recent acquisitions such as William Raphael’s Bonsecours Market, Montreal (1880) continue to enrich the Gallery’s collection of late 19th-century painting. The Gallery also owns the largest number of oil paintings by James Wilson Morrice in a public collection, thanks in part to a recent gift of 51 works by Mr. A. K. Prakash in 2015.
Former Director Eric Brown made several early purchases of works by Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven, such as Franz Johnston’s Fire-Swept Algoma (1920) and F. H. Varley’s Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay (1921), establishing the Gallery as an early and ardent supporter of the group. The collection has since grown to include outstanding examples from each member, thanks in part to significant gifts such as the Bequest of Dr. J. M. MacCallum (1944) and The Vincent Massey Bequest (1968). Works by pioneering women artists, including Emily Carr, Elizabeth Wyn Wood, Prudence Heward and Paraskeva Clark, provide a rich counterpoint to the male artists of period. Outstanding examples of social realism and artworks depicting the industrial landscape in the 1930s include Frances Loring’s painfully evocative sculpture, The Derelicts (c. 1929), and Charles Comfort’s Smelter Stacks, Copper Cliff (1936).
Following the Second World War, the Gallery showed strong support for abstract painting by the Automatistes in Montreal (Paul-Émile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle and Fernand Leduc, among others) and Painters Eleven in Toronto (including William Ronald, Alexandra Luke and Jack Bush). Also well represented in the collection are artists associated with the Regina Five in Saskatchewan (such as Kenneth Lochhead and Ronald Bloore), who looked to New York School painting, and the Nouveaux Plasticiens in Montreal (Claude Tousignant and Guido Molinari foremost among them), who advocated for a new geometric abstraction in their work.
By the 1960s, figuration returned as a dominant approach in artmaking in Canada, most notably with the London Regionalists in Ontario such as John Boyle and Greg Curnoe, who were inspired by Dada tendencies earlier in the century, and the singular Alex Colville, working in New Brunswick and later Nova Scotia. Throughout this period, Michael Snow and Joyce Wieland both exerted a major influence on the visual arts landscape of the country.
With the advent of video, many artists took up the medium in the 1970s, including Lisa Steele, Vera Frenkel and Paul Wong, among others. Slightly later came the Vancouver School of postconceptual photography, which featured Jeff Wall, Ian Wallace, Rodney Graham and Ken Lum. Both genres stand as a particular strengths of the collection. Also represented is the Toronto-based artists’ group General Idea, founded in 1969, which was included among the foremost artists in the country as the 1980s came to a close.
Katerina Atanassova, Senior Curator, Canadian Art
Adam Welch, Associate Curator, Canadian Art
Adam Welch is Associate Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada, responsible for works in the collection dating from 1945 to the early 1990s. Currently working toward his doctorate in Art History at the University of Toronto with a dissertation on the relationship between Canadian and American art from the 1960s and 70s, he holds an MA from Columbia University, New York. Before coming to the National Gallery, he worked at the Whitney Museum of American Art, New York, and the Justina M. Barnicke Gallery, Hart House, University of Toronto. He has written on Jack Chambers, General Idea and Jack Bush, among others.