Views Beyond the Art: Canadian Artists in Photographs

Unidentified photographer, Paul Peel in His Paris Studio with His Son, 1889, 12.9 x 17.4 cm. Paul Peel and Isaure Verdier Peel fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

Sometimes the most compelling thing about a work of art is the artist behind it. Are they messy or neat when they work? Spacious studio or dining room table? Do they draw inspiration from rural surroundings, or are they diehard urbanites? The new exhibition, Canadian Artists in Photographs, now on view in the National Gallery of Canada’s Library and Archives, offers a fascinating glimpse into the lives of iconic Canadian artists.

Curated by Philip Dombowsky, an archivist at the NGC Library and Archives, the exhibition features over fifty photographs from the mid-19th century to the present day. Produced to complement the redesigned Canadian and Indigenous Art galleries opening on June 15 at the NGC, the exhibition also includes photographs of artists represented in Photography in Canada: 1960-2000, now on view in the Canadian Photography Institute Galleries at the NGC.

H.U. Knight, Emily Carr in Her Studio, January 1934, 20.3 x 25.3 cm. Visual Resources Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

In an interview with NGC Magazine, Dombowsky noted that each photograph in the display was selected from a range of NGC Library and Archives collections — including the Canadian Museum of Contemporary Photographs fonds and the Visual Resources Collection. The exhibition features a number of individual artists, as well as members of the Group of Seven, the Regina 5, Painters 11 and the Indian Group of Seven. Arranged chronologically by the artist’s date of birth, many of the photographs have never been published or exhibited before.

Cornelius Krieghoff at His Easel (date unknown), 18.5 x 13.0 cm. Photograph by Les Livernois, Québec. Visual Resources Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

Working from left to right, the first image on view is a photograph of the 19th-century painter, Cornelius Krieghoff. Well known for his depictions of Canadian landscapes, Indigenous communities, and the activities of French-Canadian settlers, Krieghoff remains one of Canada’s most famous pre-Confederation artists. Here, in a rare studio portrait, the artist emphasizes his career by posing at an easel, palette in hand.

Unidentified photographer, Pegi Nicol MacLeod at the Observatory Art Centre, University of New Brunswick, Fredericton, 1945, 12.3 x 17.4 cm. Madge Smith fonds, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

In addition to professional portraits, such as the image of Krieghoff, the display also features more casual, snapshot-style photographs of artists going about their daily lives. One example is a picture of Pegi Nicol MacLeod, wearing a paint-covered shirt at the University of New Brunswick in Fredericton, where she taught summer art classes between 1940 and 1948. 

Unidentified photographer, Florence Wyle in Her Studio, date unknown, 11.9 x 9.8 cm. Frances Gage fond, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

Other photographs offer fascinating views of artists in their studios. An image of sculptor Florence Wyle provides viewers with some insight into her workspace, while a shot of Paul Peel and his son reveals interesting details about the objects and decor in his studio. Works by Peel, such as A Venetian Bather (1889) will be on view in the new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries.

Philip Pocock, Alex Colville, date unknown, 23.6 x 19.0 cm. Visual Resources Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

The exhibition also includes photographs taken by well-known Canadian photographers. For example, there are pictures by Ottawa’s Philip Pocock, Vancouver’s John Vanderpant, and Toronto’s Violet Keene. In particular, a unique image of the artist Alex Colville by Pocock stands out for its snapshot-style quality and use of architecture as a natural frame. Pocock was also the Project Director for the International Photography exhibition The Camera as Witness at Expo 67 in Montreal, creating an interesting link between the history of photography, art production, and anniversary celebrations in Canada. An image of Group of Seven Member A.Y. Jackson, by Vanderpant, is another highlight, both for its imagery of Jackson in front of his painting, October Morning, Algoma (1920), and for its photographer. One of Canada’s leading Modernist photographers, Vanderpant was acclaimed for his depiction of light and form. He was at the height of his own artistic career when he captured this image of Jackson.

John Vanderpant, A.Y. Jackson in his Studio, 1929, 20.3 x 25.2 cm. Visual Resources Collection, National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives

In describing the idea behind the exhibition, Dombowsky says, “It was conceived as a way to present the human element behind the works that will be on display in the CIG and CPI. There is value in that connection. Visitors can come to the Library after the other exhibitions and see the people behind the art.” 

Canadian Artists in Photographs is on view in the Library and Archives of the National Gallery of Canada until September 4, 2017. Presented in the CPI Galleries until September 17, 2017, visitors won't want to miss Photography in Canada: 1960–2000. The National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries open on June 15, 2017.

About the Author