S'il est un peintre qui, dans toute l'histoire de l'art canadien ancien, fut sensible aux courants d'idées et aux événements de son époque, c'est bien Joseph Légaré (1795–1855). Son engagement social et politique lui permit de jouer un rôle actif dans la société québécoise de la première moitié du XIXe siècle dont il était certainement une figure dominante. Considéré comme un patriote par certains historiens—surtout à cause de son arrestation et bref emprisonnement en 1837—et considéré par les historiens de l'art comme le premier artiste né canadien à s'intéresser au paysage du Québec, Joseph Légaré a été, en général, fort mal interprété par ceux qui en ont parlé jusqu'à l'exposition et à la publication que lui consacrait la Galerie nationale du Canada en 1978.
Joseph Légaré and the Battle of Sainte-Foy
The painter Joseph Légaré (1795–1855) was both socially and politically committed. His paintings reflect this commitment, particularly La bataille de Sainte-Foy (The Battle of Sainte-Foy), acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1975. Neither signed nor dated, this painting describes the Battle of Sainte-Foy which took place April 28, 1760, and was won by Lévis' troops, who attacked Quebec City, then occupied by Murray's troops. Légaré's literary sources rely mainly on the description of the battle made by his friend, the historian François-Xavier Garneau (1809–1866). One of the artist's iconographical sources is a painting of a battle scene, attributed to Adam-Frans van der Meulen (1632–1690). The painting belonged to Légaré and is now in the Musée du Séminaire de Québec.
Le célèbre collectionneur montréalais David Ross McCord (1844-1930) doit sa réputation à une passion indéfectible pour l'histoire du Canada. Il fut l'un de ceux qui croyaient en la nécessité de préserver et de mettre en valeur les objets ou les documents qui lui sont reliés. En 1911, quelques années avant la fondation du musée qui porte toujours son nom, McCord obtint de la fille d'un graveur sur bois de Montréal, John Henry Walker, une dizaine de spicilèges contenant des centaines d'estampes, des esquisses, des dessins, des coupures de presse et des documents personnels divers. La collection cédée par Rosaleen Walker-Mignault comprenait également quelques outils ayant appartenu à son père, douze clichés de bois ou de cuivre, un carnet didactique probablement destiné aux apprentis et notamment, un manuscrit autobiographique signé par le graveur. Ce dernier avait été rédigé sur des pages vierges reliées à la fin d'une histoire de la gravure sur bois de William James Linton. De l'aveu même de Walker, les quelques feuillets présentés comme "Blanks for mounting proofs illustrative of the history of wood engraving in America" l'ont inspiré: en 1886, il décidait d'y inscrire des souvenirs et des réflexions liés à sa vie professionnelle. Près d'une centaine d'estampes accompagnent le texte; le tout est réuni sous le titre de Wood Engraving in Canada.
John Henry Walker (1831–1899)
A handwritten autobiography of Montreal wood engraver John Henry Walker (1831–1899) has been recently rediscovered in one of McGill University's libraries after a long lapse of more than half a century. The text is about ten pages and is accompanied by approximately one hundred prints chosen by Walker marking various points in his career. The text is presented here in its unabridged version, along with numerous explanatory notes. This autobiography outlines the career of a prolific wood engraver whose life has remained largely unknown. In addition, it provides the opportunity to take the social and historic pulse of a period in the history of Canadian art.
The subject of Tippett's book, Art at the Service of War, is the Canadian War Memorials (C.W.M.), that impressive collection of British and Canadian paintings, graphic arts and sculpture numbering more than eight hundred works of art. Assembled by Lord Beaverbrook and his Committee, it commemorated the efforts of Canadians on the home front, at the training camps, and on the European battlefields of the Great War (1914–1918).
As a collection of twentieth-century art, the C.W.M. is unique not only because the work is "united by theme, time and place," but because the collection surveys the broadest spectrum of British and Canadian painting of this important period, from academic to avant-garde. At first glance, then, it would appear surprising that Tippett's book represents the first effort to study the C.W.M. collection and its history in its entirety. However, such a study has been virtually impossible until recently. The sheer scale of the collection, both in terms of actual sizes (many of the paintings exceed eight by ten feet) and sheer numbers, the problems of simply conserving and properly storing such a collection, and, until lately, the relative inaccessibility of the work, either first hand or through reproduction, have been the major obstacles. Fortunately, through the efforts of the staff of both the National Gallery of Canada and the Canadian War Museum (the principal caretakers of the C.W.M.) the collection is, in fact, secure. Given these facts, Tippett's achievement is indeed considerable.
When Edmund Morris was growing up the Indian was a mythic hero to every Canadian boy. The subject was of special interest for Morris because he was the son of Alexander Morris, Lieutenant-Governor of Manitoba and the Northwest Territories from 1872 to 1877, who was personally responsible for a treaty which provided the basis for the settlement of 55,000 crucial square miles of the Canadian West. To be the son of the great treaty-maker was an inspiration to Morris.
The book on Edmund Morris by Jean S. McGill, following a catalogue and exhibition of Morris' Indian portraits by Michael Parke-Taylor and Geoffrey Simmins for the Norman Mackenzie Art Gallery in Regina, has recalled the days when that mythic role of the Indian took hold on Canada. Morris in his own way was sorting through this myth.
David Burnett's well-researched catalogue essay for the exhibition, Toronto Painting '84, is a helpful survey of various historical and contemporary factors affecting the changing cultural contexts which have generated the current painting practices in Toronto. Burnett, former Curator of Contemporary Art at the Art Gallery of Ontario and organizer of this exhibition, is concerned that the paintings in the exhibition be seen in relation to the specific history of art in Toronto since the 1950s. He reminds the reader that these works must be understood in terms "of the general conditions of western art." Throughout his clearly-written text, Burnett employs useful quotations and arguments from individuals such as Daniel Bell, Hugh MacLennan, Greg Curnoe, and John Bentley Mays which clarify the impact of European and American influences on Canadian art. Moreover, these writers are used to provide evidence of the "existence of a history that was not simply a reflection of histories from elsewhere, but are manifestly Canadian." Appropriately, Burnett mentions the evolution of abstract painting in the fifties and sixties in Toronto; the ascendancy of such alternative modes of artistic practice as conceptual art, video, and performance in the sixties and seventies and the popular re-emergence of representational painting and the critical resistance to it from the late seventies to the present. The reader gains a sense of the complexity of the pluralistic options available to contemporary practitioners. Burnett is careful to point out that much painting in Toronto today must be approached in light of the various practices and techniques that arose in the work of that generation of artists in the 1970s who worked "in video, performance, and mixed media." From this point of view, although painting cannot be assumed to be the privileged medium of the time, the presence of numerous current practitioners requires that it be assessed.