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Canadian art refers to the visual (including painting, photography, and printmaking) as well as plastic arts (such as sculpture) originating from the geographical area of contemporary Canada. Art in Canada is marked by thousands of years of habitation by First Nations Peoples followed by waves of immigration which included artists of European origins and subsequently by artists with heritage from countries all around the world. The nature of Canadian art reflects these diverse origins, as artists have taken their traditions and adapted these influences to reflect the reality of their lives in Canada.
The Government of Canada has, at times, played a central role in the development of Canadian culture, enabling visual exposure through publications and periodicals, as well as establishing and funding numerous art schools and colleges across the country. The Group of Seven is often considered the first uniquely Canadian artistic group and style of painting; however, this claim is challenged by some scholars and artists. Historically the Catholic Church was the primary patron of art in early Canada, especially Quebec, and in later times artists have combined British, French and American artistic traditions, at times embracing European styles and at other times working to promote nationalism by developing distinctly Canadian styles. Canadian art remains the combination of these various influences.
Indigenous peoples were producing art in the territory that is now called Canada for thousands of years prior to the arrival of European settler colonists and the eventual establishment of Canada as a nation state. Like the peoples that produced them, Indigenous art traditions spanned territories that extended across the current national boundaries between Canada and the United States. Indigenous art traditions are often organized by art historians according to cultural, linguistic or regional groups, the most common regional distinctions being: Northwest Coast, Northwest Plateau, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Subarctic, and Arctic. As might be expected, art traditions vary enormously amongst and within these diverse groups. One thing that distinguishes Indigenous art from European traditions is a focus on art that tends to be portable and made for the body rather than for architecture, although even this is only a general tendency and not an absolute rule. Indigenous visual art is also often made to be used in conjunction with other arts, for example masks and rattles play an important role in ceremonialism that also involves dance, storytelling and music.
Many of the artworks preserved in museum collections date from the period after European contact and show evidence of the creative adoption and adaptation of European trade goods such as metal and glass beads. The distinct Métis cultures that have arisen from inter-cultural relationships with Europeans have also contributed new culturally hybrid art forms. During the 19th and the first half of the 20th century, the Canadian government pursued an active policy of assimilation toward Indigenous peoples. One of the instruments of this policy was the Indian Act, which banned manifestations of traditional religion and governance, such as the Sun Dance and the Potlatch, including the works of art associated with them. It was not until the 1950s and 60s that Indigenous artists such as Mungo Martin, Bill Reid and Norval Morrisseau began to publicly renew and, in some cases, re-invent indigenous art traditions. Currently there are many Indigenous artists practising in all media in Canada and two Indigenous artists, such as Edward Poitras and Rebecca Belmore, who have represented Canada at the prestigious Venice Biennale in 1995 and 2005, respectively.
French colonial period (1665–1759)
Early explorers such as Samuel de Champlain made sketches of North American territory as they explored, but it was the Roman Catholic Church in and around Quebec City who was the first to provide artistic patronage. Abbé Hughes Pommier is believed to be the first painter in New France. Pommier left France in 1664 and worked in various communities as a priest before taking up painting extensively. Painters in New France, such as Pommier and Claude Francois (known primarily as Frère Luc), believed in the ideals of High Renaissance art, which featured religious depictions often formally composed with seemingly classical clothing and settings. Few artists during this early period signed their works, making attributions today difficult.
Near the end of the 17th century, the population of New France was growing steadily but the territory was increasingly isolated from France. Fewer artists arrived from Europe, but artists in New France continued with commissions from the Church. Two schools were established in New France to teach the arts and there were a number of artists working throughout New France up until the British Conquest. Pierre Le Ber, from a wealthy Montreal family, is one of the most recognized artists from this period. Believed to be self-taught since he never left New France, Le Ber's work is widely admired. In particular, his depiction of the saint Marguerite Bourgeoys was hailed as "the single most moving image to survive from the French period" by Canadian art historian Dennis Reid.
While early religious painting told little about everyday life, numerous ex-votos completed by amateur artists offered vivid impressions of life in New France. Ex-votos, or votive painting, were made as a way to thank God or the saints for answering a prayer. One of the best known examples of this type of work is Ex-voto des trois naufragés de Lévis (1754). Five youths were crossing the Saint Lawrence River at night when their boat overturned in rough water. Two girls drowned, weighed down by their heavy dresses, while two young men and one woman were able to hold on to the overturned boat until help arrived. Saint Anne is depicted in the sky, saving them. This work was donated to the church at Sainte-Anne-de-Beaupré as an offering of thanks for the three lives saved.
Early art in British North America
The early ports of Nova Scotia and Newfoundland did not experience the same degree of artistic growth, largely due to their Protestant beliefs in simple church decoration which did not encourage artists or sculptors. However itinerant artists, painters who travelled to various communities to sell works, frequented the area. Dutch-born artist Gerard Edema is believed to have painted the first Newfoundland landscape in the early 18th century.
British Colonial period (1759–1820)
British Army topographers
The battle for Quebec left numerous British soldiers garrisoned in strategic locations in the territory. While off-duty, many of these soldiers sketched and painted the Canadian land and people, which were often sold in European markets hungry for exotic, picturesque views of the colonies. Furthermore, drawing was also required by soldiers to record the land, as photography had not been invented. Thomas Davies is championed as one of the most talented. Davies recorded the capture of Louisburg and Montreal among other scenes. Scottish-born George Heriot was one of the first artist-soldiers to settle in Canada and later produced Travels Through the Canadas in 1807 filled with his aquatint prints. Forshaw Day worked as a draftsman at Her Majesty's Naval Yard from 1862–79 in Halifax, Nova Scotia then moved to Kingston, Ontario to teach drawing at the Royal Military College of Canada from 1879–97.
Lower Canada's Golden Age
In the late 18th century, art in Lower Canada began to prosper due to a larger number of commissions from the public and Church construction. Portrait painting in particular is recognized from this period, as it allowed a higher degree of innovation and change. François Baillairgé was one of the first of this generation of artists. He returned to Montreal in 1781 after studying sculpture in London and Paris. The Rococo style influenced several Lower Canadian artists who aimed for the style's light and carefree painting. However, Baillairgé did not embrace Rococo, instead focusing on sculpture and teaching influenced from Neoclassicism.
Lower Canada's artists evolved independently from France as the connection was severed during the French Revolution and the Napoleonic Wars. While not living in Lower Canada, William Berczy participated in the period's artistic growth. He immigrated to Canada from Saxony and completed several important portraits of leading figures. For example, he painted three portraits of Joseph Brant and his best known work is The Woolsley Family, painted in Quebec City in 1808–09. As the title suggests, the work features full-length portraits of all the members of the Woolsley family. It is celebrated in part because of its complex arrangement of figures, decorative floor panels, and the detailed view of the landscape through the open window. Art historian J. Russell Harper believes this era of Canadian art was the first to develop a truly Canadian character.
A second generation of artists continued this flourishing of artistic growth beginning around the 1820s. Joseph Légaré was trained as a decorative and copy painter. However, this did not inhibit his artistic creativity as he was one of the first Canadian artists to depict the local landscape. Légaré is best known for his depictions of disasters such as cholera plagues, rocks slides, and fires. Antoine Plamondon, A student of Légaré, went on to study in France, the first French Canadian artist to do so in 48 years. Plamondon went on to become the most successful artist in this period, largely through religious and portrait commissions.
Krieghoff and Kane
The works of most early Canadian painters were heavily influenced by European trends. During the mid-19th century, Cornelius Krieghoff, a Dutch born artist in Quebec, painted scenes of the life of the habitants (French-Canadian farmers). At about the same time, the Canadian artist Paul Kane painted pictures of Indigenous life around the Great Lakes, Western Canada and the Oregon Territories.
Art under the Dominion of Canada
Formed in 1870 by a group of artists including John Bell-Smith, father of Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith and Adolphe Vogt, the Canadian Society of Artists was the first organization that reflected the new political boundaries and arguably a national identity. The group consisted of artists with diverse background, with many new Canadians and others of French heritage spread out over Ontario and Quebec. Without group philosophical or artistic objectives, most artists tended simply to please the public in order to produce income. Romanticism remained the predominant stylistic influence, with a growing appreciation for Realism originating from the Barbizon school practised by Canadians Homer Watson and Horatio Walker.
Early 20th century
Nationalism and the Group of Seven
A group of landscape painters called the Group of Seven aimed to develop the first distinctly Canadian style of painting. Some worked as commercial illustrators, notably at a Toronto company called Grip and were influenced by Europe's current popular Art Nouveau style. They painted various size studio paintings along with many small pieces while on location in the back country of Canada's then wilderness.
The group had its genesis at Toronto's Arts & Letters Club before the first world war, though the war delayed their official formation. The eventual members were Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and Frederick Varley. Harris helped to fund many of the group's wilderness excursions by having custom box cars outfitted with sleeping quarters and heat, then left at prearranged train track locations to be shunted back when the group wanted to return. This was possible due to Harris' family fortune and influence as part of the Massey Harris Combine company which shipped most of their production by train. He later helped along with others to fund the construction of building for some of the group's use as studio space in Toronto.
Emily Carr and various other artists were loosely associated with the Group of Seven but never became members. Tom Thomson often referred to, but never officially a member, died in 1917 due to an accident on Canoe Lake in Northern Ontario. In the 1930s, members of the Group of Seven decided to enlarge the club and formed the Canadian Group of Painters, made up of 28 artists from across the country.
Beginning of non-objective art
In the 1920s, Kathleen Munn and Bertram Brooker independently experimented with abstract or non-objective art in Canada. Both artists viewed abstract art as a way to explore symbolism and mysticism as an integrated part of their personal spirituality. As the Group of Seven was enlarged into the Canadian group of Painters in the 1930s, Lawren Harris left the group's focus on depicting the Canadian landscape and experimented with abstract forms and aimed to represent broad conceptual themes. These individual artists indirectly influenced the following generation of artists who would come to form groups of abstract art following World War II, by changing the definition of art in Canadian society and by encouraging young artists to explore abstract themes.
Contemporaries of the Group of Seven
Founded in 1938 in Montréal, Québec, the Eastern Group of Painters included Montréal artists whose common interest was painting and an art for art's sake aesthetic, not the espousal of a nationalist theory as was the case with the Group of Seven or the Canadian Group of Painters. The group's members included Alexander Bercovitch, Goodridge Roberts, Eric Goldberg, Jack Weldon Humphrey, John Goodwin Lyman, and Jori Smith.
By the late 1930s, many Canadian artists began resenting the quasi-national institution the Group of Seven had become. As a result of a growing rejection of the view that the efforts of a group of artists based largely in Ontario constituted a national vision or oeuvre, many artists—notably those in Québec—began feeling ignored and undermined. The Eastern Group of Painters formed to counter this notion and restore variation of purpose, method, and geography to Canadian art.
Since the 1930s, Canadian painters have developed a wide range of highly individual styles. Emily Carr became famous for her paintings of totem poles, native villages, and the forests of British Columbia. Other noted painters have included the landscape artist David Milne and the prairie painter William Kurelek. In Quebec, John Goodwin Lyman founded The Contemporary Arts Society in 1939, promoting post-impressionist and fauvist art. Paul-Émile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle spearheaded the modernist collective known as Les Automatistes, which began having exhibitions as early as 1941. However, their artistic influence was not quickly felt in English Canada, or indeed much beyond Montreal.
After World War II
Government support has played a vital role in arts development, as has the establishment of numerous art schools and colleges across the country.
The abstract painters Jean-Paul Riopelle and Harold Town and multi-media artist Michael Snow. The abstract art group Painters Eleven, particularly the artists Alexandra Luke, who is credited for the groups formation, and Jack Bush, also had an important impact on modern art in Canada. The Painters Eleven (1953 - 1960) was founded in Toronto to promote their members' abstract works.
Regina Five is the name given to five abstract painters, Kenneth Lochhead, Arthur McKay, Douglas Morton, Ted Godwin, and Ronald Bloore, who displayed their works in the 1961 National Gallery of Canada's exhibition "Five Painters from Regina". Though not an organized group per se, the name stuck with the 'members' and the artists would continue to show together.
Canadian sculpture has been enriched by the walrus ivory and soapstone carvings by the Inuit artists. These carvings show objects and activities from their daily lives, both modern and traditional, as well as scenes from their mythology.
The 1960s saw the emergence of several important local and regional developments in dialogue with international trends. In Vancouver, Ian Wallace (artist) was particularly influential in nurturing this dialogue through his teaching and exchange programs at Emily Carr University of Art and Design (formerly the Vancouver School of Art), and visits from influential figures such as Lucy Lippard and Robert Smithson exposed younger artists to conceptual art.
Other notable moments when Canadian contemporary artists—as individuals or groups—have distinguished themselves through commonality, international recognition, collaboration, or zeitgeist:
- The interdisciplinary artistic practice and international success of Michael Snow beginning in the 1960s
- In Moncton, the creation of a fine arts department at the nascent Université de Moncton in 1963, headed by sculptor Claude Roussel and founder of CARFAC.
- Nova Scotia College of Art and Design University (NSCAD University). In 1967 the artist Garry Kennedy was appointed President, remaking the College into an international centre for artistic activity and inviting notable artists to come to NSCAD as visiting artists, particularly those involved in conceptual art. Artists who made significant contributions during this period include Vito Acconci, Sol LeWitt, Dan Graham, Eric Fischl, Lawrence Weiner, Joseph Beuys and Claes Oldenburg
- The pioneering early video art of Lisa Steele (Birthday Suit – with scars and defects) and Colin Campbell
- The Vancouver School of Photoconceptualism (including Jeff Wall, Rodney Graham and Stan Douglas)
- The international success of AA Bronson, Felix Partz and Jorge Zontal under the name of General Idea.
- The video art and photography of David Askevold, an early and highly influential contributor to the development and pedagogy of the conceptual art movement. His work was included in the seminal exhibition Information at New York's Museum of Modern Art in 1970.
- The success of the career of Janet Cardiff and George Bures Miller, who represented Canada at the 49th Venice Biennial in 2001
- Dance in Canada
- Art of Newfoundland and Labrador
- Beaver Hall Group
- Canadian Group of Painters
- Eastern Group of Painters
- Edmonton Contemporary Artists' Society
- General Idea
- Group of Seven
- Indian Group of Seven
- Les Automatistes
- Les Plasticiens
- List of Canadian artists
- List of Canadian art awards
- List of Canadian painters
- National Gallery of Canada
- Painters Eleven
- Regina Five
- Woodlands School
- Vancouver School
- Lynda Jessup (2001). Antimodernism and artistic experience: policing the boundaries of modernity. University of Toronto Press. p. 146. ISBN 978-0-8020-8354-8.
- The essay collection Sightlines: Reading Contemporary Canadian Art (edited by Jessica Bradley and Lesley Johnstone, Montreal: Artexte Information Centre, 1994) contains a number of critical texts addressing the issues around the difficulty of establishing or even defining a Canadian identity.
- Harper, 3.
- Harper, 4-5.
- Harper, 19–20.
- Reid, 11.
- Harper, 14-15.
- Harper, 27–28.
- Reid, 18-19.
- Reid, 19.
- Reid, 21.
- Harper, 56-62.
- Reid, 31.
- Harper, 67.
- Reid, 44.
- Reid, 47.
- Harper, 179–81.
- Nasgaard, 14.
- Terry Fenton, "ECAS And What It Stands For", ECAS 15th Annual Exhibition catalogue essay
- Norwell, Iris. (2011), Painters Eleven:The Wild Ones of Canadian Art, Publishers Group West, ISBN 978-1-55365-590-9
- Peter Goddard, "Remembering Toronto’s 1960s Spadina Art Scene" Archived 2015-01-04 at the Wayback Machine, Canadian Art, July 11, 2014