A Concise History of Canadian Painting

Photo courtesy Oxford University Press

Art history students in study carrels across this fine nation must be jumping with joy. Finally, one of their go-to books on Canadian art, Dennis Reid’s A Concise History of Canadian Painting, has come out in a third edition that is fully illustrated with large, glossy, colour reproductions—a welcome improvement over the largely black-and-white illustrations of earlier editions. At last, readers can grasp the full sensuality of Edwin Holdgate’s Nude (1930), with its rich browns and vivid blues, and the colourful liveliness of Greg Curnoe’s Corner (1975–1976).

One of Canada’s foremost authorities on the history of Canadian art, Dennis Reid is Professor of Art History at the University of Toronto, and has enjoyed a long and distinguished career as a curator of Canadian Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and National Gallery of Canada. He and colleagues Brydon Smith and Pierre Théberge made a trio of “brash young men”—as Saturday Night magazine called them—when they were appointed by NGC Director Jean Boggs in 1967 to revitalize the contemporary art department. Together, they helped put cutting-edge Canadian artists such as Greg Curnoe, Claude Tousignant and Iain Baxter on the world map.

A Concise History of Canadian Painting, first published in 1973 when Reid was still at the National Gallery, has long been considered an indispensible guide to the history of Canadian painting. I still have my copy from my undergraduate days, and have pulled it out from time to time in the middle of dinner, while trying to impart a love of Canadian art to my children.

The third edition spans over three centuries of art (1665–2000), from the painters of New France and British North America to the experimental work of Wanda Koop and the figurative painting of Attila Richard Lukacs. In between, Reid explores the evolution of the discipline through its significant artists, styles and movements: scenes of Aboriginal and settler life by Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff; the sublime landscapes of Lucius O’Brien and John Fraser; the French Academy style of William Brymner, Robert Harris and George Reid; prominent 1930s painters such as Emily Carr and David Milne; artist collectives, including the Group of Seven, Canadian Group of Painters, Contemporary Arts Society, Painters Eleven and Les Automatistes; and twentieth-century practitioners of Abstraction, Minimalism, Colour Field painting, Neo-Expressionism, Neo-Figurative painting and High Realism, including Guido Molinari, Michael Snow, Joyce Wieland and Greg Curnoe.

Reid’s analysis of paintings is for the most part thorough, evocative and lively. My understanding of Alex Colville’s work is deeper, thanks to Reid’s description of its “charged atmosphere,” “poignant ambiguity,” and Hitchcockian contrivance. Well-researched biographical details give important context to his entries. Reid recognizes, for instance, that Emily Carr’s work is inseparable from her life story, and even her writing. He presents, for example, this lovely, enlightening quote from her journal: “Something has spoken to the very soul of me, wonderful, mighty, not of this world. Chords way down in my being have been touched.”

In this edition, Reid fills some gaps left in the earlier versions by examining a number of important women artists. He has added a brief section on Canadian women at the Parisian academies in the late 1800s, including Florence Carlyle, who merits a full-page reproduction of her delightful canvas The Tiff (1902). Rita Letendre, Françoise Sullivan and Marcelle Ferron, who only received passing mention in the second edition, are given their due here, and Betty Goodwin is hailed as “one of the greatest artists Canada has produced.”

For its broad scope, many enriching explorations, and beautiful reproductions, A Concise History of Canadian Painting, Third Edition, remains an invaluable resource for art-lovers, history buffs and Canadianists alike.

Buy the Book

Share this article: 

About the Author