Your Collection Around the World: Charlotte Schreiber (1834–1922)

Charlotte Schreiber, The Croppy Boy (The Confession of an Irish Patriot), 1879, oil on canvas, 91.6 x 76.2 cm. NGC. Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Toronto, 1880

This fall and winter, the beloved National Gallery of Canada (NGC) painting by Canadian artist Charlotte Schreiber, The Croppy Boy (The Confession of an Irish Patriot), has the honour of being included in an exhibition illustrating Irish history at the National Gallery of Ireland. On view until January 15, 2017, The Croppy Boy appears alongside some of Ireland’s own masterworks in Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art. Writing about the painting, exhibition curator Brendan Rooney noted that, “though the subject is drawn from a fictional literary source rather than inspired by a single historical event, it reflects the lingering romanticism associated with the 1798 Rebellion, not just in Ireland but beyond its shores.” Accordingly, following its presentation in Ireland, The Croppy Boy will return to the NGC, where it will be installed in the reconceived Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, opening in Spring 2017.

The eponymous croppy boy occupies the left half of the canvas. His political allegiance is recognizable in his shorn and unpowdered hair, a symbol of his sympathies with the ideals of the French Revolution (1789–1799), a point of inspiration for Irish patriots. At the end of the 18th century, Irish patriots modelling this politicized hairstyle were dubbed “croppies” by the English. In addition, however, to the appearance of a croppy boy in the painting, Schreiber’s choice of title also refers specifically to an 1845 Irish folksong by the same title about the 1798 Irish Rebellion.

Schreiber’s choice of subject was undoubtedly informed by her English heritage and her knowledge of British and Irish history. When The Croppy Boy was first exhibited at the 1879 Annual Exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists, excerpts from the ballad were published in the exhibition catalogue:

The youth has knelt to tell his sins;
‘Nomine Dei,’ the youth begins.

‘At the siege of Ross did my father fall,
And at Gorey my loving brothers all;
I alone am left of my name and race,
I will go to Wexford to take their place.

Now, father, bless me before I go
To die, if God has ordained it so.’

The priest said naught, but a rustling noise
Made the youth look up in wild surprise.
The robes were off, and in scarlet there
Sat a yeoman captain, with fiery glare.

With fiery glare and with fury hoarse.
Instead of a blessing he breathed a curse.
‘Twas a good thought, boy, to come here and shrive,
For one short hour is your time to live!”

The Irish Rebellion of 1798 was an insurgency against British control of Ireland. The 1845 elegy describes the uncovering of an Irish patriot by a disguised British soldier. Schreiber’s croppy boy, the patriot, is similarly represented: he seeks to confess his sins before leaving for battle, only to be deceived by the soldier and ultimately sentenced to death.

Charlotte Schreiber, Study for "The Croppy Boy", c. 1879, oil on academy board, 25.3 x 20.2 cm. NGC. Gift of Wilfred Weymouth Schreiber, Milton, Ontario, 2007

An oil study for The Croppy Boy preserved alongside the canvas at the NGC demonstrates how Schreiber modified the composition of the painting to emphasize a specific moment in the story. In the larger painting, for example, the hair of the croppy boy is even shorter than in the study — making his connection with the Irish Rebellion more evident. In addition, the wooden crucifix attached to the back of the soldier’s chair in the study has been replaced with a golden version, which has been moved to the foreground and is the focus of the croppy boy’s devotion. The crucifix physically separates the croppy boy from the soldier in the canvas, implying the distance between their political alliances. The deceptive character of the soldier has also been developed as his head, which was exposed in the study, is shrouded by his cloak in the canvas. This further disguises him from the croppy boy, who is about to confess his intentions and thus unknowingly sentence himself to death.

When the final canvas was exhibited in Toronto in 1879, Schreiber was accused of foregrounding the Irish croppy boy over the British soldier. A critic from the Toronto Daily Mail, who did not appear to know the narrative behind the work, wrote: “the most important, perhaps, which she contributes this year is the “Croppy Boy” — an incident of one of the Irish rebellions, which is not stated. . . . The only complaint which can be made against this work is that it has a tendency to exalt the character of the rebel, while it certainly does not convey a favourable impression of the supporter of constituted authority.” Unbeknownst to the critic, this reproach in fact praises the artist. It proves that she had deftly interpreted a folksong that was decidedly a lament for the Irish patriots who fought against British control in 1798.

Charlotte Mount Brock Schreiber (née Morrell) was born in 1834 in Essex, England. She studied with John Rogers Herbert (1810–1890), an artist who educated Schreiber in the application of historical subjects and precise detailing. In 1875, she emigrated from England to join her new husband Weymouth Schreiber and his three children in Canada. As a result of her extensive training in England, Schreiber became a fixture on Toronto’s art scene, joining the Ontario Society of Artists and teaching at the newly founded Ontario College of Art from 1877 to 1880. Schreiber also exhibited with the Royal Canadian Academy, the Art Association of Montreal, the Women’s Art Association of Canada, the Canadian Industrial Exhibitions, and the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition. Her work was shown at the 1890 Paris Salon and the 1893 World’s Columbian Exposition in Chicago. Schreiber stayed in Canada until the death of her husband in 1898, after which she returned to Devon, England. She remained in Devon until she passed away in 1922.

The Croppy Boy (The Confession of an Irish Patriot) is generally considered Charlotte Schreiber’s chef-d'oeuvre. This accolade is due in part to the fact that The Croppy Boy was the artist’s Royal Canadian Academy diploma work, deposited at the National Gallery of Canada in 1880. Quite unusually for a woman artist at this time, Schreiber’s talent as a painter was endorsed by her male peers during her lifetime: Schreiber was the R.C.A.’s only female Academician from the founding of the institution in 1880 until 1933. As a result, The Croppy Boy (The Confession of an Irish Patriot) remains not only an iconic historical work, but a masterpiece by a Canadian woman artist that will once again occupy pride of place when the NGC’s new Canadian and Indigenous Galleries open in Spring 2017.

The Croppy Boy is on view in the exhibition Creating History: Stories of Ireland in Art at the National Gallery of Ireland until January 15, 2017.

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