Wednesday, 1 May 2013


The Practical Photograph and the Diminishing Decadence of Descriptions

The gallery has had ample opportunities to reflect upon the advent of photography over the past year. We had a successful show of Richard Henry Trueman photographs of British Columbia and the Rockies from the late 19th century, and more recently we have had an online sale and show of early 20th century photographs called With Train and Grain: Expanding the Canadian Prairies in Photograph. We have also had the opportunity to develop a permanent presence for available historical photographs on our website, including a variety of Western Canadian subjects by numerous photographers.

Upon reflection it is amazing to see how far photography has come in a mere two centuries, especially when compared against other developments spanning thousands of years of art history. Not only is photography a highly respected form of fine art; it has also proven to be integral for documentation and visual aid. Today many photographers take pictures, or use photography in whole or part, with creative aims in mind. From the mid-19th century photographers used early photographic processes to document what they saw around them. Documenting the expansion of the Canadian Pacific Railway line westwards is a good example. Photography is also ever increasingly used as a visual aid, exemplified in the academic and commercial art industry alone through art history textbooks and art catalogues to the images used for online shopping.

The use of photography in daily life, and the art industry more specifically, has come so far it is difficult to imagine picking up an art catalogue or textbook with no photographs for visual reference. Before the widespread use of photography and improved printing techniques, how would an author or cataloguer relay what the art being discussed looked like to readers who haven’t seen the art? Some books and catalogues would include engravings copying paintings being discussed, but this would be far too costly and time consuming for a large or multi-volume catalogue of art. If an author or cataloguer wanted to give a sense of what a picture looked like it, they would simply have to describe it in writing, usually in great detail. Such was the case for picture dealer John Smith’s multi-volume A Catalogue raisonne of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters published in editions between 1829 and 1908 (most of which published in the 1830s).

The need for descriptive cataloguing has diminished nearly to redundancy since photography has been used in book publishing. When one can look at images of paintings the use of lavish and prose-like wording to describe art is no longer necessary, and may even seem like a foreign concept today. However, in 1829 when John Smith embarked upon cataloguing Old Master paintings in private and public collections across Europe wordy descriptions were necessary for the reader to visualize the paintings in the epic catalogue raisonne. In the 19th century cataloguers would have been well practiced at flowery cataloguing; but to today’s readers the style of these entries might seem over-the-top and even comical. I will conclude by leaving you with a selection of entertaining descriptions of Dutch Old Master genre painting entries from A Catalogue raisonne of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters. They attempt to convey the quality, mood, and/ or detail of the paintings being discussed. I hope you find them as amusing as I do!

1. A Pig-sty- of a highly picturesque appearance, in which are three hogs luxuriating in filth. A tub, partly overturned, and other objects, complete a picture which exhibits a faithful transcript of nature.

2. Twelfth Night- The subject is composed of about twenty persons, most of whom are exhilarated with liquor, and are indulging in the gayest excesses of mirth and jollity. Among the various groups may be noticed an old fellow (probably the king of the evening’s amusement), wearing a yellow dress and a napkin round his head, completely inebriated, whom a man and a woman are lifting on a table.

3. A Lady and her Page- This superlative bijoux of art represents the portrait of a lady of singular beauty, about twenty-three years of age; her fair countenance is seen in nearly a front view, and her dark hair is tastefully disposed in curls. She is elegantly attired in a white satin robe….she is attended by a page, habited in the fanciful costume of the period…

4. Villagers Merry-making- The scene of hilarity is represented as passing in front of a house of a picturesque appearance…. Mirth and conviviality prevail throughout the piece.

5. The Angry Man- A gentleman elegantly habited in a yellow jacket, with slashed sleeves, and blue hose; his countenance agitated with anger, and his right hand grasping the hilt of his sword, which he is in the act of drawing from its scabbard.

6. Villagers dancing and regaling- The cheerful scene is passing in front of some cottages occupying the right of the picture, one of which is distinguished by a vine growing luxuriantly over some trellis-work … A social group of four persons may also be noticed under the shade of the trellis-work, and in addition to these are an old man seated near a tilted cart with a jug in his hand, and the mirth-stirring fiddler mounted on a tub. The more distant scenery exhibits a continuation of the village. This most enchanting work of art is dated 1660.

7. A Hurdy-Gurdy Player- A merry fellow, of a florid complexion wearing a black slouched hat, and a dark purplish coloured cloak over a yellowish jacket. He is seated, playing an instrument. The figure in this clever little picture is seen to the middle.

All excerpts extracted from John Smith’s A Catalogue raisonne of the works of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish and French Painters published in editions between 1829 and 1908

By: Jill Turner

Photo credits

1 and 2. Exhibition posters for Masters Gallery shows featuring historical photography.

3. A historical photograph documenting a Frontier funeral (from a Yukon album)

4. An example of a contemporary art catalogue displaying high resolution colour photographs of the paintings in an exhibition (Masters Gallery Calgary's 30th Anniversary exhibition)

5. Interior title page of a 1908 edition of John Smith's A Catalogue Raisonne of the most eminent Dutch, Flemish, and French Painters.

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