Canadian Art History and Museums

Canadian Art History and Museums

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Canadian art carries the weight of thousands of years of Indigenous art history. Diversity features primarily in the Canadian art of today.

The European colonial periods were a major influence on the present form of art in Canada.

Knowledge nurtures the mind and art soothes the soul. It does not matter whether or not you are a student of art, an artist, art connoisseur or just someone mildly curious about it. Trust me about this, art will help you feel, help you heal.

Art in Canada is very diverse due to its diverse origins. The French and British artists introduced neoclassicism, romanticism and realism into the Canadian art community.

Let’s take a journey back in time to explore the ancient art scene of Indigenous people of the province now known as Canada.

Canadian Indigenous Art

Indigenous art Canada
By the globe and mail

Long before the modern artists of Canada became renowned, the indigenous people of the province have been dabbling in art since ancient times.

If you try researching Canadian art, most likely you will be led to the French or British colonial period in Canadian art history.

However, the indigenous people created art before even the Europeans arrived. The indigenous culture did not recognise the boundaries that were later defined by Europeans.

Indigenous art was spread to both continents, which were later defined as Canada and the United States.
Indigenous art used to be influenced more by the topography of the region of indigenous artists.

While keeping that in mind, these are the distinctions that can be made: Northwest Plateau, Northwest Coast, Plains, Eastern Woodlands, Arctic & Subarctic region.

The difference in region meant the art forms usually varied among the indigenous communities as well.

Rather than genres such as Romanticism, Realism, and Neoclassicism like that of European art culture, Indigenous art culture followed and another form.

Indigenous art used to be focused around Shamanism, pleasure, practicality or decoration.

The objects decorated with Indigenous art were usually held in high regard or even considered divine(i.e. mostly in the case of shamanistic art).

The 19th and 20th centuries were darker periods for the indigenous people of Canada.The Canadian government of that time sought to forcibly assimilate indigenous groups into one Canadian nationality agenda.

This comes with prohibitions on pursuing indigenous cultural activities. Potlach and Sun dance were banned and the artworks related to the two were also declared illegal.


This continued for as long as the 1950s. During the 60s, Bill Reid, Norval Morrisseau & Mungo Martin brought forth a new era of indigenous art.

They sought to promote and reinvent the lost culture of the indigenous people, advocating for the indigenous art forms.

Presently, Canadian indigenous art is a world-renowned art form heralded by artists such as Rebecca Belmore & Edward Poitras.

Contemporary & Modern Art

Contemporary Canadian art
by wikipedia

With the 1960s came a new era in the Canadian art community. The contemporary art form, which had recently been incorporated into many of the international artistic communities, was welcomed by Canadian artists as well.

Robert Murray, who became a world-famous contemporary artist, originated from Canada. However, his rise to fame started after shifting to New York City during 1960.

The Canadian art form expanded from focusing around paintings and sculptures to modern visual art forms.

Photography and video art created by David Askevold was highly appreciated in the international art community.

His work is featured in the Museum of Modern Art in New York. He was also invited to join the NSCAD during 1968.

Canadian art history is influenced heavily by the colonial period that it went through. The French colonial period in the history of France lasted from 1675 to 1759.

The history of the art of the country is known to have started back with indigenous tribes. However, the colonial periods have their contribution to Canadian Art as well.

Canadian art during the French Colonization

The art in this period began with the basic geographical sketches of various Canadian territories.

Samuel De Champlain was one of those early explorers of the era that helped sketch North American Territory during their travels.

Abbey Hughes Pommier is known as the first artist who became known in the region. While the artists may have started from the mainland France, their work progressed in New France.

Pommier and Claude Francois are two renowned artists from the French colonial era of Canada. They were both mainly focused on High Renaissance art forms.

Claude Francois, High Renaissance Candian art
by Pinterest

The Roman Catholic Church in Quebec was the one to facilitate the import of artistic talents from Europe to New France.


Two schools of art were founded to instruct the newly budding artistic community in New France. One of the primary names in artistic contributors of the era is known to be Pierre Le Ber.

Pierre Le Ber is perhaps the most important name that you should remember about the French Colonial Art Era.

His work on “St Marguerite Bourgeoys” was famously called “the most moving image to have survived the French Era” by Dennis Reid, a popular Canadian art historian.

Canadian Art: Portrait de Marguerite Bourgeoys.jpg
By Wikimedia commons

The works by the artists of the French colonial period were mostly based around religious concepts. Especially so for the mainstream and famous artists.

However, the artworks by lesser known artists depicted the lifestyle of the people during that era. Scenes from the daily life of the common folk featured prominently among some of the less famed artworks.

Some of the paintings may even be considered to have depicted events that happened among commoner folks. One of the popular paintings in this niche is a little story of five friends.

While traversing the Lawerence River, their boat overturns suddenly. Two of the girls, who had put on heavy dresses, drowned due to the weight of their heavy dresses.

The rest, two boys and a girl, are saved by St. Anne while holding on to the overturned boat.

Canadian Art during the British Colonial Era

The time period between 1759 to 1820 was the time of the British colonial period for Canadian history.

The British soldiers were spread around in different locations in Quebec. Most of the officers passed from the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich.

They were taught watercolour painting to capture the landscape of the region.

Thomas Davies, Canadian art history
Museé McCord

One of the most talented artists among all the officers and British military of the region was Thomas Davies. Some of his more popular pictures contain the series of Louisburgh and Montreal.

One of those soldiers was George Herriot. He was also known as the first few of the soldiers talented at art that decided to settle in Canada. He published his book Travel through the Canadas, back in 1807.

This contained aquatint prints of his works.
Some of the other major names were Forshaw Day and James Cockburn.

Lower Canada region artistic growth

The late 18th century in Canadian art history is also known as the Golden Age, the heart of the lower Canadian region.


There was a starting incline in the demand for artistic works by both the public and church, both sectors. Portrait painting art of the region originated during this era.
Francois Baillairgé was one of the most well known names in Canadian art history of the late 18th century in lower Canada.

L'ange gardien
L’ange gardien. Credit:

After learning sculpture artform in Paris and London, Baillairgé returned to Montreal. During this time, the Rococo was a famous art form among lower Canadian region artists.

Baillairgé favoured and advocated the use of Neoclassicism among his followers instead.
William Berczy was one such artistic name that majorly influenced the artistic growth in the era, while not being a part of lower Canada himself.

Berczy is famously known for his portrait art of the Woolsley Family. The painting was done in Quebec around 1808-09.

You should have already guessed about the nature of the painting from it’s name alone.

It’s a portrait painting of the Woolsley family. The members of the Woolsley family are depicted at full length in the picture. It was a one of a kind art form around that era.

The piece is renowned for it’s thorough characterization of the family members as well as the surrounding area of the picture.

The detailed definition of floor panels and the terrain visible through the window, which was open at that time, presents a masterpiece.

Antoine Plamondon
by National Gallery of Canada

The artistic growth continued on from this point forward in the country. Another popular Canadian artist of this time, Joseph Légaré, was a trained copy painter.

While he may have started as a Carpenter, that does not mean his art pieces lacked inspiration or creativity.

Légaré is known for depicting local topography through his artworks. He even went as far as depicting calamities such as rock slides, fire hazards and Cholera plagues.

He was known for the detailed definitions in his pieces.

Antoine Plamondon, a student of Joseph Légaré, moved on to France for further studies in art.

Plamondon eventually became a world renowned artist, also known as the most successful artist of this era.

His primary focus relied in religious and portrait works.

Art associations of Canada


The Society of Canadian artists in Montreal was founded in 1867 by an artistic group of professional painters.

The artists of this group came from various backgrounds, who died together by their passion towards arts.

Before this era, most artists tended to do commission work for the wealthy or religious artworks for churches.

Ontario society of artists in News
by Wikipedia

The formation of this committee brought a sense of coherence in the artistic community.

Romanticism primarily dominated the style of the artists of this era, while there was a budding inclination towards Realism as well. The society was dispersed around 1872.

Another artistic society, namely the Ontario Society of artists, originated in Toronto in 1872. Fortunately, the philosophical ideas of society stood the test of time, and they are still running exhibitions today.

The foundational ideas behind the Ontario Society of artists are more solid.

Nurturing the original art of the region, while launching annual exhibitions, as well as the establishment of art museums and libraries and educational institutions were some of the goals of society.

Another establishment that is still running presently was founded back in 1880. It is known as the Royal Canadian Academy.

It advocated the visual arts genre of artistic expression. The Royal Canadian Academy became the driving force behind the idea of putting Canadian artists onto international platforms.

Group of Seven & Nationalism during the 20th century

The group of seven, things to do in Canada; visit National gallery of Canada
by wikipedia

Edmund Morris and Curtis Williamson established the Canadian art club which was in function from 1907 to 1915. The club sought to enhance the qualities of exhibitions in the province.
The group of 7 started from Toronto’s arts and letters club before the start of World War 1.They were tired together by common national heritage.

The group aimed to commercialise the artistic industry by encouraging the members to develop commercially profitable pieces.

They had studios for their members where they could bring their sketches of any landscape and develop their work.

Group of seven art, things to do in Canada; take an art tour.
Group of seven art by Wikipedia

While membership remained restricted during the early period, later on the rules were loosened. More members were included in their group.
Some of the successful members of the group included Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, and J.E. MacDonald.


Emily Carr was another associated member of the group, but wasn’t an official member.
You might ask what is the point of discussion about this particular group?
Well, the heights that the Canadian auction market is seeing today die due to the framework created by the members of this group of seven.

List of Canadian Art Museum

National Gallery of Canada

380, Sussex Dr, Ottawa, ON K1N 9N4, Canada

Ticket price: CA $0-16

Art Gallery of Toronto

317 Dundas St W, Toronto, ON M5T 1G4, Canada
Ticket price: CA $0-25

McMichael Canadian Art Collection

10365 Islington Ave, Kleingburg, ON L0J 1C0, Canada

The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts

1380 Sherbrooke St W, Montreal, Quebec H3G 1J5, Canada

Museum of Contemporary Art

158 Sterling Rd #100, Toronto, ON M5R 2B7, Canada

The Canadian art forms range from paintings to sculptures; shamanism influenced indigenous idols and contemporary art forms as well.
European immigrants brought with them their art as well, which assimilated into Canada’s art culture.

Eventually, Canadian art evolved to become what it is today.



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