Allan Edson: Depicting "Shawinigan Falls"
Acquired in 2021, Shawinigan Falls is a rare example of work by Canadian-born artist Allan Edson (1846-88), who was considered one of the great landscape painters of the 19th-century. Executed with remarkable technical ability, Edson's compositions of nature did not just seek to capture the expansiveness of the landscape, typical in works by his contemporaries, but rather celebrated moments of quietude.
Born in Quebec's Eastern Townships, Edson was one of the earliest-known, locally trained landscape painters of the period. His initial art training in Montreal during the 1860s coincided with the city's vibrant cultural flourishing. By 1863, Edson was mentioned as the star student of the African-American painter Robert Scott Duncanson (1821–72), who lived in the city between 1863 and 1865 and inspired the first wave of luminous landscape painting. Edson also joined a group of young artists, centred in and around the city, who demonstrated a growing interest in the objective, precise representation of their surroundings. Although romanticized, their scenes nevertheless possessed a decidedly local flavour, particularly when compared to the highly idealized depictions of the previous generation.
Shying away from the dramatic panoramas favoured by many of his contemporaries, Edson preferred serene country scenes, such as riversides and waterfalls or woodland borders, allowing him to convey nature’s simple beauty. He gradually came to focus on the naturalistic portrayal of light. In many of his compositions from the 1860s onwards, the use of natural light took on a stronger, almost spiritual quality. It further epitomized the romantic dichotomy of the real and the ethereal.
Edson's The Pike River, Near Stanbridge of 1864 is an early landscape, possibly painted under the direct tutelage of Duncanson. The misty atmosphere, the compositional setting of a lake and mountain in the background point to similarities with Duncanson’s Owl’s Head Mountain of the same year. In a similar way, Shawinigan Falls, painted in 1867, highlights Edson's skill for close observation and his concern for truthful representation of nature. Painted in brilliant coal-tar colours, the work shows the artist's overall concern for atmosphere and clarity.
The late 1860s and early 1870s were characterized by an increasing concern for capturing light out-of-doors, as seen in contemporary American art and in the spread of photography. As noted by Dennis Reid, former Curator of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada, it was the close association with photography that underlined the fundamental change that occurred in Canadian landscape painting at this time. William Notman’s photographic studio in Montreal played a special role in this evolution. His series of different views of waterfalls demonstrates especially his use of strong contrasts of light and shade, capturing unmodulated light. These carefully constructed photographic compositions had a lot in common with contemporary landscape painting, including setting a clear middle plane and a foreground of varied textures or focal points, such as a tree branch or a rock.
By the 1860s, Quebec's Shawinigan Falls were a popular tourist destination and a favourite painting spot for many artists. The Falls were named for an Algonquin word meaning “crest” or “summit” and referring to an early portage near the Falls, they were easily accessible from various points on the Saint-Maurice River. The fast-flowing river, dropping rather abruptly and nearly vertically at the Falls, made for a dramatic setting, appealing to artists and photographers alike.
In 1863, Notman published Photographic Selections by William Notman, marking his connection to several Montreal-based landscape painters, such as Charles J. Way (1826–91), Otto R. Jacobi (1812–1901), John A. Fraser (1838–98) and the newly arrived Duncanson. The publication included two landscape photographs by Notman, as well as photographic reproductions of the artists’ landscape paintings, including a work by Way featuring Shawinigan Falls. It appears that a few years after Way’s painting was published, both Edson and Jacobi painted the Falls. Edson picked a viewing spot near the top of the rapids, on the left side, looking down the river, towards the so-called Devil’s Hole. He seems to have applied a similar approach in composing the scene as Notman had in his photograph of 1866 – one of many taken since the early 1860s by Notman of the Falls from different vantage points.
Edson's untimely death in 1888, at the age of 41, cut short an accomplished and highly successful career. His Shawinigan Falls, one of three depictions of the Falls he exhibited at the Second Society of Canadian Artists exhibition in 1870, deepens our understanding of the cultural milieu in Montreal in the 1860s and the new direction of Canadian landscape painting in the 19th century. Shawinigan Falls is a superb example of his mature period and subject matter, and a great addition to the national collection.
Work by Robert S. Duncanson and Allan Edson can be viewed alongside that of John Fraser and Otto Jacobi in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.