Canadian art has undergone a rich evolution since the arrival of the first European explorers who landed in North America in the early 17th century. This period of over four centuries has seen the evolution of numerous styles and artistic movements, influenced by the social, political, and cultural changes that have marked the history of the country. In this first blog, I propose to briefly trace the history of painting in Canada, from the first sketches of New France to the emergence of contemporary art. This will involve identifying chronologically the events, movements, and artists that have had a significant impact on the evolution of painting in the country.
Our brief history of Canadian painting begins in the early 17th century with the arrival of Samuel de Champlain in New France. At that time, painting in Canada was limited to a few watercolor drawings illustrating Champlain's voyages and the customs of the Indigenous peoples. During the years that followed until the end of the 18th century, very little artistic activity took place on the new continent, due to the sparse population, the efforts for survival during harsh winters and conflicts between the French and the English. During this period, there were some portraits of religious figures, scenes of martyrdom, and other religious-themed paintings done by missionaries who came to evangelize the Indigenous peoples. It was not until the end of the 18th century that landscapes began to appear more and more.
After the English conquest in 1760, French influence declined and the landscape school that developed in Canada was influenced by English, German, and American culture.
In the early 19th century, the arrival of several European artists led to a true emergence of landscape painting in Canadian art. These painters contributed to the maturation of painting during the early part of the century. Alongside this rise of landscape painting, a tradition of portraiture developed with Canadian artists working as portraitists, producing images of Canada's social and political elites.
Among the most important artists of the 19th century, Cornelius Krieghoff and Paul Kane can be mentioned. Krieghoff, a Dutch immigrant, produced a series of paintings depicting the everyday life of French Canadians, hunting and fishing scenes that capture the vibrant and colorful atmosphere of rural communities
Paul Kane, on the other hand, is best known for his several-year journey to western Canada, where he spent time with Indigenous peoples and painted numerous portraits of their leaders and way of life. His paintings are notable for their ethnographic accuracy and careful representation of Indigenous life.
During the second half of the 19th century, Canadian art experienced some maturation, not in terms of originality, autonomy, or the emergence of a distinct style, but rather in terms of technical and stylistic foundation obtained through absorption of European influences. This absorption was mainly facilitated by the presence of immigrant artists from England, Germany, and the Netherlands.
Distinct National Aesthetic
Towards the end of the 19th and early 20th centuries, there was still no distinctly Canadian painting school, and almost all young Canadian painters went to study in French schools, creating a strong dependence on French artistic trends. During this period, there was a resurgence of exceptional Canadian painters who combined the Impressionist movement with the local peasantry, but there was no avant-garde art. Art remained subject to Parisian artistic dogmas. Some artists remained isolated from this French trend and developed their own personal style, while others followed a modern Dutch artistic movement.
In reaction against the academism and realism that prevailed at the time, the search for a painting style independent of European influence with a distinct aesthetic occupied the minds of the Canadian artistic community. A collective of artists from Toronto was among the most influential during this time, creating an artistic movement that proposed a distinct national aesthetic by painting Canadian landscapes. The Group of Seven was founded in 1920. Its members traveled throughout the country to capture the natural beauty of Canada and created stunning works that had a significant influence on Canadian art. In parallel with the Group of Seven in the 1920s, several other artists developed different approaches, which were ignored during the years of the group but recognized later in the 1930s.
Critiqued for being an exclusive club focused only on landscape, a weariness of this genre and a desire for other genres such as urban or interior scenes, after over 10 years of popularity, the Group of Seven disbanded to form the "Canadian Group of Painters". This new, more inclusive group had an expanded vision of Canadian art, going beyond landscapes and encouraging more modern ideas and techniques. The Canadian Group of Painters would have nearly thirty highly talented painters as members who left their mark on the Canadian visual arts scene until the mid-1950s.
In 1939, John Lyman, a prominent critic of the Group of Seven, founded the Contemporary Art Society to promote modern art to the Montreal public. This artists' club was open to non-academic painters and held several exhibitions in the following years. Initially, the group had a tendency towards post-impressionism, but under the influence of two of its members, Paul Émile Borduas and Alfred Pellan, this style gradually gave way to abstraction. This group had a significant influence in the 1940s, but its influence remained limited outside of Montreal.
At the same time, Borduas formed the Automatistes group in 1942, advocating for an experimental and intuitive artistic approach, akin to Abstract Expressionism, a form of spontaneous expression without prior planning. This approach allowed artists to create abstract works that reflected their state of mind, emotions, and personal experiences. In 1948, Borduas published "Le Refus Global," a manifesto calling for social and political revolution, encouraging artists to express themselves freely, without being constrained by social conventions and established aesthetic norms.
The 1950s and 1960s were marked by an expansion of abstract art in Canada. In Ontario, a collective of painters came together under the banner of the "Painters Eleven" and produced lyrical abstract works in response to the American Abstract Expressionism and French Tachism movements. This group held several exhibitions and contributed to the acceptance of abstract art by the Canadian public. Another group of artists called the "Plasticiens" emerged in Quebec and produced geometric abstract works that focused on the plastic characteristics of a painting. Followers of the Dutch painter Piet Mondrian, the Plasticiens proposed a definition of abstract art where geometric forms, lines, colors, and contrasts were used to create the image of a new object.
Canadian painting between 1960 and 1980 was characterized by a great diversity of styles. The artistic trends of previous decades continued. During this period, four main trends can be identified: traditional figuration, new figuration, lyrical abstraction, and geometric abstraction. There was also an emergence of Indigenous art. Indigenous artists began to explore the artistic traditions of their own culture while incorporating contemporary influences into their works. It was also a period of experimentation, with many artists exploring new ideas from surrealism, magical realism, conceptual art, figurative expressionism, and more.
The end of the 20th century was marked by a blending of styles and diverse influences. Canadian artists continued to explore varied approaches, ranging from realism to abstraction, including expressionism, surrealism, and other artistic movements.
Some artists continued to work on the representation of the Canadian landscape, with works highlighting the vast wilderness of the country. Others focused on urban landscapes, particularly those of Quebec and Montreal. New artistic trends also emerged, with a deeper exploration of abstraction, minimalism, and other contemporary approaches.
Today, many talented artists continue to explore new techniques, push the boundaries of artistic expression, and address important social and political issues. Canadian painting will continue to evolve, influenced by global artistic trends as well as cultural and environmental issues specific to Canada. Furthermore, with advancements in technology and digitization, Canadian painting could also evolve into new forms of artistic expression, combining tradition with modernity.
The following chronological diagram illustrates the evolution of painting in Canada over the past four centuries, placing in time the events, groups and some of the most important artists in our Canadian artistic heritage.