The Canadian War Museum, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Art Gallery of Ontario are the unique venues that offer access to these six paintings.
Earlier versions of the descriptions of these paintings first appeared in 1001 Paintings You Must See Before You Die, edited by Stephen Farthing (2018). Writers’ names appear in parentheses.
The Death of General Wolfe (1770)
The American artist Benjamin West moved in 1763 to England, where he quickly gained a reputation as portraitist to King George III before painting his most famous and monumental work, The Death of General Wolfe. When it was first exhibited at London’s Royal Academy in 1771, it was initially criticized for being overambitious. However, by the end of the century, opinion had changed. Three full-scale copies were commissioned from West, including one for the king, while smaller prints of the work became one of the best-selling reproductions of the period. This Neoclassical painting depicts British Major-General James Wolfe dying at Quebec in 1759, during the war that established Canada as British colony. Wolfe won this fight but lost his life, and West presents him as a modern, noble hero. Flanked by fellow officers and a Native American, each figure responds to Wolfe’s death, focusing the viewer’s attention on this central scene. West has distorted actual events to heighten the painting’s drama. Here, the battle is in full swing right behind the dying general; in fact he died further afield as the battle was ending. Wolfe’s body in the painting also alludes to Christ’s descent from the cross, and the shape of the brooding clouds echoes his slumped figure. West also unconventionally depicts his figures in contemporary dress, rather than working within a classical or allegorical manner, thus emphasizing the work’s veracity. The Death of General Wolfe is in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. (William Davies)
Winter, Charlevoix County (1933)
A.Y. Jackson is best known for being a member of the exhibitors’ group formed in 1920 and known as the Group of Seven, a collection of Canadian painters who sought to eschew the traditions of European landscape painting in an attempt to forge a uniquely Canadian voice. Winter, Charlevoix County depicts the artist’s native province of Quebec. Jackson’s style intensifies colors but remains essentially naturalistic. The way in which he has simplified the rhythmically rolling hills into solid, almost plastic forms, encourages our eyes to trace his brush as it follows the open road, which opens up into the foreground, and then as it moves to the simple cottages in the background. Every curve and irregularity in the telephone wires and fence posts are lovingly remembered, as is each and every track made in the snow. The presence of a horse reminds the viewer that though scarcely populated, this is a landscape in which people live. Jackson’s treatment of the landscape was a departure from the more neutral and detached Impressionistic tradition that still lingered in Canada up until that point. The attitude toward the subject that is manifested by this approach sits somewhere between awe at the grandeur of the land and a love for the land that comes from close acquaintanceship. The painting is in the collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto. (Steven Stowell)
Habitants Sleighing (c. 1855)
Although Cornelius Krieghoff was born in Amsterdam and died in Chicago, he is known as one of the fathers of Canadian painting. Habitants Sleighing, a sentimental depiction of French Canadian peasants, was created during the artist’s greatest period of productivity, when he was living in Quebec city. Paintings such as this appealed to the aristocracy there as it represented the French peasants and Canadian Aboriginals—two greatly marginalized groups of people during this period—as simple, harmless, and diverting. Many images such as Habitants Sleighing (which is part of the collection of Toronto’s Art Gallery of Ontario) were bought by European military men stationed in Quebec, who then took them home as a souvenir of Canada. The politics of Krieghoff’s images, many of which took the same or similar subjects as this painting, are still an issue of sensitivity to this day, but his unique achievement was that he brought Canadian subjects into the field of painting, in much the same way that 17th-century Dutch genre painters brought the everyday life of the Dutch middle class into the popular imagination. Krieghoff could never be called a masterful painter, but here he has artfully composed his subject along the lines of conventional European genre painting of the time. He has very closely observed the Quebec landscape, with its sugary snow and crystal-like sky, which serves as a backdrop for his depiction of the habitants. The idealistic nature of the Quebec landscape very strongly supports the notion that his paintings were highly constructed fantasies of how people wanted to remember the country and its people. (Steven Stowell)
The Mechanic (1920)
Believing that mechanized production was giving birth to a new aesthetic that would upturn Europe’s artistic conventions, French artist and designer Fernand Léger endeavored in The Mechanic to articulate an emergent standard of beauty as embodied in the industrial worker. While closely associated with Cubism, Léger’s work is distinct from that movement. For example, the forms out of which Léger constructed his compositions are tubular and spherical. Here, both the figure and the industrial background typify this distinctive style. Critics have noted that one of the most gripping aspects of the painting is the tension between the impersonal treatment of the shapes of the man’s body and the individuality with which Léger endows him—with rings, a mustache, and a tattoo. He envisions an industrialized society that elevates the working man, not one that dehumanizes him. The Mechanic is in the National Gallery of Canada. (Alix Rule)
Invasion Pattern Normandy (1945)
Born in England, Eric Aldwinckle relocated to Canada in 1922 and became a graphic designer in Toronto. From 1943 to 1945 he held the rank of flight lieutenant with the Royal Canadian Air Force with whom he served as an official war artist. Invasion Pattern Normandy depicts from above a fighter aircraft of the Allied air forces (which can be identified by the insignia on its wings) flying over the coast of Normandy. The schematic, maplike quality of the painting, and its cool, mostly monochromatic hues, imbue the painting with stillness and calm. Aldwinckle dispassionately observes the scene as though it were simply an abstract arrangement of beige, green, and blue, and not a scene of war. As such, Invasion Pattern Normandy forces the viewer to adopt an emotionally detached perspective on a view of one of the most decisive battles of World War II. By doing this, Aldwinckle creates a tension between the subject matter and the way in which it is depicted: draining the scene of freneticism and of any of the conventional emotional reactions to war. It is as though he is saying that any attempt to convey the horror of the reality would fall short of its ambition. Instead, he offers us an even more powerful evocation of this horror: an absolute emotional detachment that is emphasized by the physical distance between the viewer’s vantage point and the landing beach below. As a war artist, Aldwinckle had free rein to paint whatever he chose, and his cool contemplation of the coast of Normandy is an exercise in restraint and control. Invasion Pattern Normandy is part of the collection of the Canadian War Museum in Ottawa. (Steven Stowell)
Burial at Sea (1944)
Trained as both a lawyer and an artist, Harold Beament served as an officer in the Canadian navy from 1939, was an official war artist from 1943 to 1947, and retired with the rank of commander. Created during World War II and in the collection of the Canadian War Museum, Burial at Sea offers an intimate glimpse into what one must imagine was one of the most somber events aboard a ship. Beament launches the viewer into the middle of a burial scene, as the flag-cloaked body is about to be cast off to sea. In the background, mourners with bowed heads decorously pay their respects, while in the foreground three men go about the practical business of deposing the body. The color of the flag’s stripe is echoed in the skin tones of the sailors’ faces. At first glance, the viewer has difficulty orientating the space of the image and its crowded composition; only the title of the work indicates that the large white form dominating the foreground is a body draped in a flag. The face of one of the three men supporting the stretcher seems to strain under the weight of the body; his engagement in his task is in sharp contrast to the calm of the group of mourners behind him, including a saluting officer. The differences between these two groups of people, as well as the unusual spatial composition of the image, cleverly and quietly convey to the viewer the untidy, difficult, and sometimes morbid business of life aboard ship. In this way, Beament was able to capture a unique psychological dimension of life in the navy. (Steven Stowell)