The Mastery of Realism: The Work of Canadian Painter Charlotte Schreiber
Charlotte Mount Brock Schreiber (1834–1922) was a professional Canadian painter who worked in the Greater Toronto Area between 1876 and 1898. She has been credited as one of the first painters to introduce realism in Canada, and her paintings are now held in collections across the country, including the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Glenbow Museum and the National Gallery of Canada. Schreiber’s work was recognized by some of the most prominent art institutions in Ontario, at a time when the field was dominated by men and by patriarchal attitudes regarding the role of women in the professional art world.
Charlotte Schreiber was born in Essex, England, in 1834 to Robert Price Morrell, an Anglican clergyman, and Mary Mount Brock. This made Charlotte a third cousin to Major-General Sir Isaac Brock, the military commander, administrator of Upper Canada and fallen hero of the War of 1812. With her father’s encouragement, Schreiber pursued a high-level art education at Mr. Carey’s School of Art in London, England. She also received informal training and mentorship under John Rogers Herbert, a Royal Academician of the Royal Academy of Art and the painter who greatly influenced and trained members of the Pre-Raphaelite Brotherhood in the 1840s, several years prior to Schreiber’s education in 1850–55. Her training within this artistic environment was foundational to her practice as an artist, and Herbert’s influence is noticeable in the body of work she produced in England before moving to Canada.
Herbert and the Pre-Raphaelites were invested in representing romantic, medieval, religious and British literary subjects in the style of Realism. Schreiber fully adopted this painting style in her depictions of literary subjects, achieving early success and continuing to exhibit over the next fifteen years. She created book illustrations for an 1871 edition of Edmund Spenser’s The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse, the first volume of his epic poem The Faerie Queene, and for Elizabeth Barrett Browning’s 1873 book The Rhyme of the Duchess May. Schreiber exhibited these works at important art institutions, such as the Royal Academy in London and the Paris Salon. The Gallery holds nine drawings for The Legend of the Knight of the Red Crosse series. The drawings Schreiber made for this volume have frequently been misattributed as depictions of King Arthur.
In 1875 at the age of 41, Schreiber moved to Canada with her new husband (a second cousin) Weymouth Schreiber and his three children. She lived and worked as a professional artist in Toronto's Deer Park area, at "Bradwell Lodge" on St. Clair Avenue, where the family resided for the next ten years. In 1884, the Schreibers moved to Mount Woodham, one of three homes that the family built on their property at Springfield-on-the-Credit (Mississauga). Schreiber set up a studio there, where she painted and trained her students. In 1899, following the deaths of her two stepdaughters-in-law in 1893 and 1897 and of her husband in 1898, she moved back to England permanently, living in Paignton, Devon, until her death in 1922.
Although Schreiber produced some history paintings in her early years in Canada – where she spent the greater part of her professional career – she generally moved away from the genre of British history painting and literary subjects over time. Her most celebrated Canadian work is The Croppy Boy (The Confession of an Irish Patriot), an important work in the Gallery's collection. Schreiber exhibited the work at the annual Ontario Society of Artists exhibition in 1879, and she selected the painting as her diploma work for the inaugural exhibition held by the Royal Canadian Academy of Art (RCA) in Ottawa in 1880. As Schreiber was elected to full academician of the RCA that year, she was one of five artists required to donate one painting to the RCA, a tradition inspired by the Royal Academy in Britain. These five “diploma works” later formed the foundation for the National Gallery of Canada collection.
The Croppy Boy was inspired by the Irish ballad of the same name, which commemorates the Irish Rebellion of 1798, written by Carroll Malone [William B. McBurney] in 1845. The painting makes a statement on morality (see the related article by Julie Nash). Schreiber made several other moralistic paintings during this period, including The Happiest Land (1875), now housed in Calgary's Glenbow Museum. The Croppy Boy is considered Schreiber’s most successful painting, especially in terms of its life-like treatment of the human form.
Schreiber’s later Canadian work took on more modest themes, including genre scenes documenting her life in southern Ontario – portraits of her family and friends, paintings of domestic pets and farm animals, landscapes and still lifes. Throughout her career, Schreiber continued to work in the realist style she had developed in England. She believed that subjects should be represented as they are in “nature,” and she was critical of modern painting movements, such as French Impressionism, which challenged conventional Victorian painting traditions. In an interview in 1895, the artist remarked about her own work: “the human hand, the finger nail, the foot, every portion of the living body, the parts of a flower, are divinely beautiful … it is a joy to paint them as they are in reality."
Schreiber's mastery of realism is exemplified by her tender, unidealized portraits, such as the Portrait of Mrs. Graham, a painting now lost that has been digitally recovered through the Gallery's Library and Archives’ slide collection. Her 1890 painting Naughty Girl is another example of her realist style. It depicts Ottilie and Violet Grahame, two sisters who were related to Schreiber through her husband’s side of the family. The artist often used her family, friends and students as models in her paintings. After her return to England, she continued to paint, but little is currently known of what she produced.
Schreiber made significant contributions to professional artists’ societies in Canada and made considerable advances in the Canadian art world, unprecedented for a woman at that time. She was elected to the Ontario Society of Artists (OSA), its second woman member and the first to be permitted to attend meetings. She exhibited works in the annual OSA exhibitions from 1876 to 1890. She also played a significant role as the first female art teacher and sole woman on the council at the Ontario School of Art (now, OCAD). There, she trained and influenced other artists, including Ernest Thompson Seton, Beatrice Mary Walker and George Agnew Reid. In 1878, she was appointed to the management of the board, where she ran the art school with the artist and architect James Smith (1832–1918) and the celebrated Canadian landscape painter Lucius O’Brien. Two years later, in 1880, she became a founding member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA) and the Academy's first female academician, and the only full female Academician until 1933 with the election of Marion Long (1882–1970).
Despite Schreiber’s impressive record as a professional artist in the 19th century, her work has received little attention from Canadian art historians and art institutions in the last 35 years. The two exceptions are the small 1967 solo exhibition at the Women's Art Association of Canada and Erin College, University of Toronto, and the larger retrospective at Erindale Campus Art Gallery (now Blackwood Gallery) in 1985. Although her work has gained little interest in Canadian culture in recent years, it holds a significant place in the history of Canadian art and it should continue to be recognized.
For a listing of works by Charlotte Schreiber in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, see the collection online. Share this article, and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to discover more about art in Canada.