Tuesday, 28 July 2015



To date it has been one of the driest summers on record in Vancouver. As a result the elements have wreaked havoc on the geography of British Columbia (and other Western provinces) this month. Over 250 forest fires were burning across the province by mid-July. For a week earlier this month smoke engulfed the city of Vancouver and the nearby busy resort areas along the Sea to Sky corridor (Whistler, Squamish and Pemberton) and the Sunshine Coast. It has finally rained for a couple days and will hopefully provide a little bit of relief on the environment.

Watching it finally rain from inside the gallery got me thinking about celebrated Canadian landscape paintings and how often the weather they depict is beautiful, tranquil and idealistic. There is an abundance of imagery depicting clear and crisp fall days and snow-clad villages after the snow has fallen and the skies have cleared. But Canada is a vast northern country, and the weather is hardly easy on Canadians. The Scandinavians used their northern landscape in art as a tool for nationalism, and one of the ideas behind this was that, although beautiful, the tough and unforgiving nature of the rugged north and its harsh environment made the dwellers of the land a strong, persevering and resourceful group of people. MacDonald and Harris must have considered this aspect of the theory behind using the northern landscape for national pride in their paintings as well, when they returned home enthusiastic from viewing the Scandinavian art exhibition in Buffalo, New York in 1912.

It may be more pleasing to the eye to depict sunshine and fresh snowfalls, however it is also quite difficult to capture the elements of nature at work in paintings. Elements such as rain, falling snow, wind, fire and smoke appear especially difficult to emulate in most fine art mediums. These natural effects are partly difficult to depict because oil paint is opaque but smoke, clouds, mist, fire, snow and rain are all atmospheric and semi-translucent. Furthermore, in reality most of these elements are moving at a considerable pace, where as a 2-dimensional painting is not. Nevertheless, I have sorted through some Canadian art history books and found a handful of examples whereby Canada’s favourite landscape artists have captured rain, snow, stormy weather, and scorched landscapes after forest fires in an attempt to represent a diversity of natural effects on Canada's landscape.

A.Y. Jackson travelled to the Arctic twice, and this canvas depicts a very foreboding dark sky rolling in over the frigid landscape.

(A.Y. Jackson, The Beothic at Bache Post, Ellesmere Island, 1929 (National Gallery of Canada))

J.E.H. MacDonald has presented and interesting stylized approach to a rain storm in this scene of the Rocky Mountains.

(J.E.H. MacDonald, Rain in the Mountains, 1924 (Art Gallery of Ontario))

Here we have more bad weather by A.Y. Jackson, but this time the dark precipitous weather is not rolling in, it has already arrived! It is very difficult to capture the act of snowfall versus already fallen snow, especially when the ground is not yet snow covered. The artist must attempt to make contrasting white snow against the dark background appear to have a sense of the movement across the otherwise static picture surface. Jackson has accomplished this in his canvas from 1920, along with another sketch from the same year. It appears as though 1920 was a year in which Jackson really played around with different weather patterns in his sketches and canvases.

(A.Y. Jackson, First Snow Algoma, circa 1920, (McMichael Canadian Art Collection))

(A.Y. Jackson, First Snow, Georgian Bay, 1920 (Art Gallery of Ontario))

Jackson also painted this early spring storm earlier that year.

(A.Y. Jackson, March Storm, Georgian Bay, 1920 (National Gallery of Canada))

Especially in Eastern Canada, during the warmer months of the year the weather can change rather abruptly. A storm can roll in over fair weather in a matter of minutes. As these flash storms suddenly roll across the horizon they are reminiscent of a battle front line marching forward in unison across a field. Casson has perfectly captured the ominous nature of a big storm approaching. You can feel as though you are there waiting for it to start pouring at any moment.

(A.J. Casson, Approaching Storm, Lake Superior, c. 1929-30 (National Gallery of Canada))

Arthur Lismer adroitly depicted torrential rain and the feeling of forcefully blowing wind right in the midst of a storm. This is the sort of storm you would expect to roll in shortly in Casson’s Approaching Storm, Lake Superior.

(Arthur Lismer, A Westerly Gale, Georgian Bay, 1916 (National Gallery of Canada))

So far we have seen mastery with the paintbrush as Group of Seven members successfully tackled depictions of wind, rain and snowfall. Other natural elements are equally hard to represent. It has already been mentioned that the opacity of paint is less conducive to the depiction of more transparent natural phenomena. Smoke is a good example of this. Franklin Carmichael found a way to accurately depict billowing smoke piles rising realistically.

(Franklin Carmichael, The Nickel Belt (Ottawa Art Gallery))

Although the northern lights are not in the category of ‘bad’ weather, the continued movement and transparency of this natural phenomenon would be difficult to portray in painting. Tom Thomson managed to paint a beautiful and tranquil nighttime painting of the Northern Lights in 1916.

(Tom Thomson, Northern Lights, 1916 (National Gallery of Canada))

Thinking about all of the recent forest fires propelled me to write this blog about the harshness of the elements in Canada. However, thankfully none of our celebrated artists hung around in the wilderness to sketch a wildfire in action. The potential dangers of that would have been too extreme, especially if the wind picked up and spread the fire quickly. There are however some well-known paintings by Tom Thomson and Lawren Harris that depict the harsh aftermath of forest fires on the landscape.

(Tom Thomson, Fire-Swept Hills, 1915 (Art Gallery of Ontario))

(Lawren Harris, Lake Superior Sketch no. 63, circa 1926 (National Gallery of Canada)

On that note, let us hope that the rest of the summer provides just enough rainfall in Western Canada to keep the forests from turning into the scorched landscapes painted above but still plenty of lovely weather to provide artists with ample ideal subject matter.