Thursday 26 March 2015



Art books have been a great inspiration for my blog topics so far. The Garden in Art and Medicine in Art were two books that inspired blogs last year. A book from my own little collection is the inspiration for this blog. The book is called Great Smaller Museums of Europe and I have decided to take this European topic and apply the idea to Canada.

So many amazing masterpieces adorn the walls of Europe’s large and prestigious public institutions. During my travels I have also had the opportunity to encounter masterpieces of art in some of the smaller institutions across Europe that are mentioned in Great Smaller Museums of Europe. It is always such a lovely surprise to go to a smaller venue and find well-known masterpieces one is fond of, especially when it is not expected. It is also a bonus that these works of art can be seen in more intimate settings, in contrast to the way one ends up viewing the Mona Lisa amongst a crowd of people in the Louvre. I have had similar experiences in our own country.

A memorable example for me was a trip to the Tom Thomson Gallery in Owen Sound, Ontario. I made a weekend pilgrimage to the Bruce Peninsula a few hours northwest of Toronto especially to see this gallery. The collection of Thomson paintings was impressive, but this gallery also hosts great travelling exhibitions. In this instance they were having a World War I art show, and a great canvas by Paul Nash that I had tried to locate in London a few years earlier was hanging on the walls in Owen Sound. I talk about this in more detail in the blog Lest We Forget. This goes to show that there are unsuspecting places to see fabulous art in Canada as well. I was further reminded of this when thinking about all of the great art that my alma mater has in its museum, the McMaster Museum of Fine Art.

Tom Thomson, Algonquin Park, 1915 oil on panel (at the Tom Thomson Gallery, Owen Sound, Ontario)

JEH MacDonald, Mitchell's Lake, Algoma circa 1918 oil sketch on panel (McMaster Museum of Fine Art, Hamilton, Ontario)

Camille Pissarro Pommiers en Fleur and Vincent Van Gogh Untitled Still Life: Ginger Pot and Onions, 1885 (McMaster Museum of Fine Art, Hamilton, Ontario)

I thought more about Canadian equivalents to small galleries and museums that house masterpieces of art history. Canada has a number of large institutions with the nation’s best art. The National Gallery of Canada, the McMichael Canadian Art Collection, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the Royal Ontario Museum, The Musee National des Beaux-Arts du Quebec, the Montreal Museum of Fine Art, the McLaughlin Gallery, and the Glenbow Museum and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria are a handful of Canada’s major public institutions. However, there are plenty of smaller venues within which one can find exceptional historical art.

My blog will highlight a few of these small museums across the country, in the same way that galleries and museums across Europe were singled out in the book Great Smaller Museums of Europe. In the opening line of Stourton’s introduction he states that “the book should probably be called ‘Great Smaller-and-Mid-sized Museums,” but no publisher would accept such a turkey.” I will not deviate far from this statement either and will really be highlighting small-to-mid-sized galleries as well. These include regional galleries and the galleries of mid-sized urban areas, private museums and art collections, and the collections of universities. There are enough of them that I will only be breaking the tip of the iceberg on this topic. I will start with museums in the west and move eastwards with reasons why I think each gallery is worth a visit (or at least an online visit!)

The Royal BC Museum isn’t exactly small, as it houses objects of interest from natural history and human history (such as archaeology and ethnology collections). It has vast holdings, and has been around since the end of the 19th century. Yet it isn’t somewhere you might expect to find an abundance of fine art. To the contrary, The Royal BC Museum holds the largest array of archival material relating to Emily Carr as well as 100 paintings. But the museum also has watercolour and oil paintings by Carr, particularly of totem pole subjects. Many of the best examples are in the United Kingdom this year at the Dulwich Picture Gallery for the successful Emily Carr show. When they are next back at the Royal BC Museum and on display, it would be well worth a trip to see them. On their website, they

Emily Carr, Tanoo, Queen Charlotte Islands, 1913, oil on canvas (BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC)

Two watercolours by Emily Carr Skedan Poles, Queen Charlotte Islands, 1912 and Skedan Poles in the Rain, circa 1912 (BC Archives at the Royal BC Museum, Victoria, BC)

Moving across the Straight of Georgia to mainland British Columbia, I have chosen a Vancouver gallery that is nestled between high rises in the downtown core. The Bill Reid Gallery is another one that is well worth the visit. Although somewhat hidden, it is less than two blocks away from the much larger Vancouver Art Gallery and nothing a map can’t help to locate. Like Emily Carr, Bill Reid is one of British Columbia’s most celebrated artists of the 20th century. The gallery was founded in 2008 in order to perpetuate the legacy of Reid's art. The permanent collection at the Bill Reid gallery highlights some of his most incredible metalwork from all periods of his career. Progressing through the gallery, one can see the stylistic changes and advances that Reid made throughout his life. After studying the detailed intricacies of his jewellery in the permanent collection, one exits into the main hall to be confronted with Reid’s impressive monumental bronze frieze, Mythic Messengers.

Bill Reid Milky Way Necklace and Nanasimget Bracelet (at the Bill Reid Gallery, Vancouver, BC)

Bill Reid Mythic Messenger monumental bronze frieze (Bill Reid Gallery, Vancouver, BC)

Surrounded by ancient mountains in the destination town of Banff, Alberta is the Whyte Museum. People flock to Banff for its natural beauty and outdoor activities today, and so did artists throughout the late 19th and 20th centuries. As a result, the Whyte Museum has ‘area-specific’ artwork by Canada’s finest artists in our history. This includes artists who are renowned for having important ‘Rocky Mountain’ components to their oeuvre, such as: JEH MacDonald, Lawren Harris and Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith. This gallery was opened by the artist and philanthropist couple Peter and Catherine Whyte. They were originally from Boston, but made the Canadian Rockies their home and passion. Setting up the gallery was a perfect way for them to act as advocates of the art, culture, and landscape of the Rocky Mountains.

As mentioned earlier, universities are often the beneficiaries of top-notch art collections. I already mentioned my own alma mater’s gallery at McMaster University, where I have fond memories of learning amongst top quality Old Master European art as well as great Group of Seven panels. In Alberta, the University of Lethbridge holds the most extensive collection of art by 20th century master Nicholas de Grandmaison. The University of Lethbridge Art Gallery not only has this extensive collection, it has digitized it so that it can be easily used for research. The family of de Grandmaison gifted the collection to the university.

I think of the Prairie Provinces as both having a high ratio of talented and creative artists throughout history as well as great patronage. As a result, the remarkable collection of a connoisseur who had an excellent eye for good art by great artists makes up the basis of what is now the Mendel Art Gallery. I have not been to this gallery myself, but based on the artwork illustrated in a publication for the opening of the gallery in 1964, I can be assured that this gallery’s permanent collection is impeccable.

Lawren Harris and JEH MacDonald canvases (Mendel Gallery, Saskatoon, Saskatchewan)

Although hardly ‘small,’ the Winnipeg Art Gallery is a good example of a superb public institution in a mid-sized urban centre. This gallery was established in 1912, after a group of businessmen got together under the shared pretences that communities benefited from art. It has been expanding ever since, and is a first class establishment. The gallery has an excellent history of having good exhibitions. The gallery owns one of Frank Johnston’s most well known Lake of the Woods period canvases, called Serenity Lake of the Woods, painted later in 1922. The gallery always seems to be participating in the best travelling exhibitions across the country. Their permanent collection represents all periods in Canadian art history well, and includes rare 19th century works by artists like William Raphael, Robert Clow Todd and Paul Kane. They also have George Agnew Reid’s The Story from 1890. Another masterpiece that is a highlight in this gallery is Tom Thomson’s canvas Early Snow.

Frank Johnston Serenity, Lake of the Woods 1922 oil on canvas (Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba)

George Agnew Reid The Story, 1890 oil on canvas (Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba)

Tom Thomson, Early Snow, 1916 oil on canvas (Winnipeg Art Gallery, Manitoba)

We have now moved this discussion into eastern Canada. I have given Ontario a kick-start by already mentioning the McMaster Museum of Fine Art at McMaster University and the Tom Thomson Gallery in Owen Sound. There are two other university galleries that I would like to mention. The first is the University of Toronto Art Collection in the University Art Centre. This collection has significant paintings by the Group of Seven and Painters Eleven, as well as the famous 19th century English painter, JMW Turner. The second university gallery is the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University. Queen’s has an impressive 16,000 works of art in their collection with a good focus on historical Canadian and European paintings. I am certain there are plenty of treasures in the galleries of old and established universities in Eastern Canada, but I can’t focus just on those as I would like to mention other types of small galleries.

Lawren Harris, Ontario Hilltown, 1926 oil on canvas (University of Toronto Art Centre, University of Toronto, Ontario)

Arthur Lismer, Silhouettes of Georgian Bay, 1926 oil on canvas (University of Toronto Art Centre, University of Toronto, Ontario)

Arthur Lismer, Quebec Village (St. Hilarion) 1926 oil on canvas (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen's University, Kingston, Ontario)

Two very fine Rembrandt van Rijn oil on panels, Head of a man with a Turban, circa 1661 and Head of an Old Man, circa 1630 (Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Kingston, Ontario)

The last gallery in Ontario that I will bring up is the Art Gallery of Hamilton. This mid-sized museum is well worth a visit if you are in Hamilton. This gallery has some famous Canadian paintings that you might be surprised reside there instead of in the National Gallery or the AGO. For example, Lawren Harris’ canvases Hurdy Gurdy and Ice House, Lake Superior both belong to the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The gallery also houses Tom Thomson’s canvas The Birch Grove, Autumn (1915-1916). There is also a lovely collection of paintings by the 19th century Canadian master, William Blair Bruce. The group of Bruce paintings includes most of the examples of his work that are illustrated in scholarly publications. Blair Bruce’s importance in Canadian art history has recently been reconsidered with a seminal new publication about him). The gallery's first exhibition was a show of Blair Bruce's paintings in 1912. 29 of 33 paintings in that first show are now in the gallery's permanent collection. They were given to the gallery by Bruce's widow under the pretext that they be housed in a suitable venue. This sparked the incentive for the gallery to acquire a good space and expand their collection. The gallery has had numerous relocations and upgrades (as recently as 2005).

Lawren Harris, Hurdy Gurdy, 1913 oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario)

Lawren Harris, Ice House, Coldwell, Lake Superior oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario)

Tom Thomson, The Birch Grove, Autumn, 1915-16 oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario)

William Blair Bruce, Mother and Child (Giverny) 1887 oil on canvas (Art Gallery of Hamilton, Hamilton, Ontario)

Quebec is also a treasure trove of museums and galleries, and has some of the country’s best large-scale museums too. This is not surprising considering the rich history of Quebec. For this reason I will choose to focus on a venue that contains early art from the 17th, 18th and 19th centuries. The Ursulines were the first female religious educators to arrive in North America alongside Jesuit missionaries. They have been in Quebec since 1639. Over hundreds of years the Ursulines have acquired an extensive historical collection of Canadian and European art and artifacts. The museum was established in 1936 in order for the public to have access to the collection. The Musee des Ursulines de Quebec also has a large Jesuit collection of pre-1800s paintings. Many of the works cited in the first chapters of The Concise History of Canadian Art can be found in this museum. The museum is housed in a 19th century building just outside the walls of the heritage monastery.

An important early colonial painting, La France apportant la foi aux Hurons de la Nouvelle-France, circa 1670 oil on canvas (Musee des Ursulines de Quebec, Quebec)

will conclude our cross-country jaunt through great small museums of Canada with a couple in the Maritimes. A mid-size gallery of national repute can be found in Fredericton, New Brunswick. I am referring to the Beaverbrook Gallery. Built-upon the foundations of Lord Beaverbrook’s collection, the gallery offers thorough coverage of the history of western art spanning many centuries. Lord Beaverbrook was a wealthy baron in England, but he spent his childhood in the maritimes, and thus gave many cultural gifts to the area. The gallery It has a substantial Canadian collection, and includes some of Cornelius Krieghoff’s best work. A traveling show that featured masterpieces from this collection went to Florida in recent years.

James W. Morrice, Cirque, Concarneau oil on panel (Beaverbrook Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick)

Cornelius Krieghoff, Merrymaking, circa 1860 oil on canvas (Beaverbrook Gallery, Fredericton, New Brunswick)

I am going to end with one final university gallery that is also in the Maritimes. The Owens Gallery at Mount Allison University is Canada’s oldest university gallery open to the public. The base of the collection was purchased in 1885 for students to study and research. The gallery officially opened in 1885. To this day it has retained great art of the 19th and 20th century. It is a great surprise to see two exceptional paintings by the great 19th century English academician Sir Alma Tadema and the Pre-Raphaelite star Edward Burne-Jones. Another interesting thing about the Owens Gallery is that it is the only public institution to have a collection of all Alex Colville's 47 serigraphs.

Sir Lawrence Alma Tadema (English) Music Hath Charms, 1873 watercolour (Owens Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick)

Edward Burne-Jones,Hero Lighting the Beacon for Leander, 1877 oil on canvas (Owens Gallery, Mount Allison University, Sackville, New Brunswick)

I hope everyone enjoyed a cross-country survey of a handful of Canada's best smaller and mid-sized galleries and museums. There are treasures nestled in corners of the country, and I hope everyone gets a chance to visit some of the places mentioned in the blog, or similar museums and galleries.

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