Saturday, 9 January 2016



Two years ago in early January I wrote a blog about stretching the holiday season as long as possible like it was done in the period historically called Christmastide. This lasted all the way until January 5th or 6th with Twelfth Night on the eve of Epiphany. It is now past Twelfth Night and the holiday season has officially come to a close. Hundreds of years ago when Twelfth Night was as important a celebration as Christmas day, the Monday after it was called ‘Plough Monday’ and marked the day where everybody resumed their work. This is not unlike today, where many people return to work after enjoying time with friends and family between Christmas and the New Year. Returning to work and taking down all the decorations after extended festivities can be a difficult adjustment. However society couldn’t function unless hundreds of thousands of people are working hard at their jobs to contribute to the fabric of daily life.

Workers Making Bricks in the Tomb of Rekhmine, Thebes, Egypt

Throughout the ages artists have chosen a multitude of subject matters ranging from the most noble of events to the everyday grind of working life. Depicting people at work has been a subject of interest as far back as Ancient Egypt. The subject of working became forefront for artists in France in the 1850s as they started an art movement that celebrated and beautified the raw truth and reality of ordinary life without a sugar coating (this included depictions of hard work and labour) It was called realism and some big names of the movement include Jean-Francois Millet, Gustave Courbet, Jules Breton, and Jules Bastien-Lepage. Not that many years later across the English Channel in Cornwall, the Newlyn School of artists were following suit and producing painstakingly accurate, yet atmospheric, paintings of ordinary people at work in the fishing villages of the area. The movement expanded throughout Europe, Russia and America.

Jean-Francois Millet "The Gleaners" (1957)

Gustave Courbet "The Stonebreakers" (1849)

Jules Breton "The End of the Working Day" (1886-87)

Jules Bastien-Lepage "October" (1878)

Walter Barnsley "Breadwinners" (1896) [Newlyn School]

People at work became even better established as a subject matter during the First World War, where artists were commissioned to capture the activities of war through an artistic yet truthful eye without any glorification. Canadians were very involved in art documentation during World War I. Social realism continued to be a subject of interest during the interwar years and again very much during the Second World War.

As Canadian art arose into its own national entity from around the mid 19th century, it parallels the rise of the realist movement and thus throughout Canadian art history there has been a readiness to showcase ordinary life and work. From Cornelius Krieghoff onward Canadian artists have happily showcased ordinary working circumstances. Although Canadian art history promises a wealth of enchanting landscapes, artistry and beauty can also be found in the depiction of normal life and labours.

Cornelius Krieghoff "Settlers Camp Saint Maurice Valley" (1858) (Sold at Masters Gallery Vancouver)

The following is an assortment of Canadian art that I have chosen to illustrate the presence of working life as a subject in Canadian art. I have tried to cover different periods and regions. Wartime labour and agricultural work are the most prevalent. Perhaps because war effort and food production are crucial to the safety and sustenance of the nation, artists have recognized this and heralded these workers efforts. Some works are in public institutions and others are available at Masters Vancouver.

George Agnew Reid "Logging" (1888)[National Gallery of Canada]

Marc-Aurele Suzor-Cote "Retour des Champs" (1903)[National Gallery of Canada]

Dorothy Stevens "Munitions, Heavy Shells" (c. 1918) etching [Available at Masters Gallery]

E.J. Hughes "Early Morning PT Training" (1945) [Canadian War Museum]

Andre-Charles Bieler "Les Patates, Argentenay" (1929) [Art Gallery of Hamilton]

Fritz Brandtner "Road Laying" (circa 1940s) [Sold at Masters Gallery Vancouver]

Charles Comfort "A segment of the interior mural in the Toronto Stock Exchange" (1937)

Sybil Andrews "Ploughing Pastures" (1941)[Available at Masters Gallery Vancouver]

I hope you enjoyed these works of art that celebrate work. Now get back to work!


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