Tuesday, 4 March 2014



For me one of my most memorable paintings sold at Masters Gallery in Vancouver over the past year has been George Agnew Reid’s important masterpiece The Visit of the Clockmaker. This painting was exhibited at the World’s Columbian Exposition (aka the Chicago World’s Fair) in 1893 alongside another significant work by Reid called The Foreclosure of the Mortgage. The World’s Fair was an important international event that brought nations together to celebrate a worldwide diversity of arts and culture and industry and technology. The Visit of the Clockmaker and The Foreclosure of the Mortgage depict candid moments drawn from everyday life. They are 'genre' paintings.

George Agnew Reid The Visit of the Clock Maker 1892

George Agnew Reid The Foreclosure of the Mortgage c. 1892

Genre painting is defined as:

The pictorial representation in any of various media of scenes or events from everyday life, such as markets, domestic settings, interiors, parties, inn scenes, and street scenes.*

The term can be interchangeable with genre art, genre scenes or genre views. The scenes could be realistic, imaginary, or romanticized. Alternatively, a painting that depicts a moment frozen in time of an actual event from the past (but including religious, mythological, and allegorical subject matter) is called history painting. Historically (especially during the 19th century) a hierarchy of painting genres existed that ranked works based on prestige and cultural merit. The French Academy even had an ‘official’ rank. History painting was perceived to be the highest ranked and most noble of subjects for painting, and genre painting ranked third after portraiture and higher than still life, architectural views and even landscapes then. Genre painting was behind history painting and portraiture only in that it generally didn’t have an inspirational story or message necessarily.

Agreement with this hierarchy was particularly prominent in the 19th century French Salons and British Academies. However since the acceptance of 'modern art' this hierarchy no longer plays a role in evaluating the significance of paintings as it did in previous centuries. Particularly in Canada, where landscape painting has always been most prevalent starting with the topographical illustrations of colonial days through to the Group of Seven and right down until present day. However during the 19th century genre painting was not completely absent in the country. Though fewer in numbers, there were Canadian artists painting genre scenes more in fashion with what was most accepted on the European art scene, either in the Salons and Academies or amongst outside circles such as the impressionists or realists. Typically artists (not just in Canada, but elsewhere in Europe) looked mostly for inspiration at the Paris Salon and in art circles, or possibly also to the Academy in London or outsider circles such as the Pre-Raphaelites or the Newlyn School. Genre painting was common.

Francois-Joseph REim Charles V Distributing Awards to the artists at the close of the Salon of 1824 1827

In 1880 The Royal Canadian Academy of Art was founded. It was modeled more or less on the Royal Academy in London and other similar establishments. However, it did also aim to support Canadian art and noticeably artists drew subject material from Canada. The founding and early members of the Royal Canadian Academy were also in tune with academic painting in Europe and therefore often in addition to painting landscapes would paint a range from grand history scenes to genre scenes of a more mundane or intimate nature. History and genre paintings by Canadians still usually have a distinct identity with the country.

Interior of a Royal Canadian Academy Exhibition 1893

A Canadian Academician whose painting is stylistically similar to Reid’s Visit to the Clockmaker was Robert Harris’s A Meeting of the School Trustees now in the National Gallery. It is in academic style with rather grand gestures and title for a somewhat mundane daily occurrence. Harris manages to breath life into this realistic meeting. Masters Gallery sold a significant interior genre scene in the past by well-known art instructor and painter William Brymner, called Blackfoot Indians, Gleichen, Alberta.

Robert Harris Meeting of the School Trustees 1885

William Brymner Blackfoot Indians, Gleichen, Alberta 1907

Paul Peel is another of Canada’s well-esteemed early Academicians whose genre paintings are of a more intimate or romanticized type. He favoured the tender moments of everyday often with children, infants and mothers. Masters Gallery had a Suzor-Cote painting of a moving scene showing an intimate but more tragic side to everyday life at the turn of the century. It depicts a father a father agonizing over the bedside of his very sick child in a hospital ward. All though saddening, this is a beautifully rendered painting.

Paul Peel The Young Biologist 1891

Paul Peel The Young Gleaner 1888

Marc-Aurele Suzor Cote The Visit 1905

Canadian artists have also been known to depict outdoor scenes of everyday life such as markets or inns. Academician William Raphael’s masterpiece Behind Bonsecours Market, Montreal is a good example of such, as is Cornelius Krieghoff’s Jolie Fou tavern scenes. Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith is typically known for his watercolours of the Rocky Mountains, but he also spent a good portion of his painting career depicting the busy street life of cities like London and Paris. Masters Gallery has sold many good examples of these over the years.

William Raphael Bonsecours Market, Montreal 1866

Four Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith London scenes

Cornelius Krieghoff L'auberge Jolifou c. 1860

Having moved from Peel’s gentle genre scenes to illustrating illness, the aftermath of war, and tavern brawls I will return to a more lighthearted scene of everyday life during a Canadian winter. Charlotte Schreiber’s Springfield on the Port Credit depicts three children out playing in the snow with a sled. Schreiber was the second female to be inducted into the Royal Canadian Academy as a member.

Charlotte Schreiber Springfield on the Port Credit c.1880 (Private Collection, Ontario)

Lastly, I will illustrate work from another Canadian female who frequently painted genre works (though she moved permanently to the England to be with her also renowned artist husband Stanhope Forbes). Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes may have painted in a looser painterly manner than Charlotte Schreiber or George Reid, she utilized everyday life in Cornwall in her work to the fullest. Representing the common life in Cornish fishing villages was important to the Newlyn School painters, thus genre painting was typical for artists like Elizabeth and her husband. The Newlyn School shared common thoughts with French realist painters, whereby painting less than glamorous aspects of common life was considered.

Elizabeth Stanhope Forbes At the Edge of the Wood 1894

Stanhope Alexander Forbes A fish Sale on a Cornish Beach 1885

I hope that I have illustrated a fair number of excellent Canadian paintings in this whirlwind look at genre painting in the country.


*definition taken from Wikipedia

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