The assault on Cornelius Krieghoff, Canada's national painter
Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
Cornelius David Krieghoff may be Canada's bestknown artistic product, though "byproduct" is perhaps the better word. The German-Flemish painter was born in Amsterdam in 1815, emigrated with his parents to North America in 1835, and eventually settled in Montreal in 1840. He was completely self-taught and a great self-promoter, selling small paintings and portraits like there was no tomorrow. It has been estimated that he painted nearly two thousand pictures -- detailed, cheery depictions of nineteenth-century Canadian life: native communities, winter sports, sleigh rides, and pioneers.
Dennis Reid, the chief curator and art historian at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, is an admirer of Krieghoff, and he has for years taught a graduate seminar on the painter's work at the University of Toronto. The course often includes a trip to examine the collection of Kenneth Thomson, which, at nearly 250 paintings, is the largest private Krieghoff collection in the world.
In October 1995, with encouragement from Thomson, Reid decided to undertake a massive research project to examine Krieghoff's paintings in galleries and private collections across Canada. The project has blossomed into the largest ever traveling exhibition of Krieghoff, over 152 paintings. After opening late last year at the Art Gallery of Ontario, the show has headed out for display in most of the major Canadian museums.
Reid also masterminded Krieghoff: Images of Canada, the volume accompanying the show. This book includes all of the paintings in the exhibition, plus three chapters of new scholarship on the artist. The book is magnificent and will be the standard-bearer for all discussion of Canada's national painter: his work, his life, and his passions.
The only problem is that the jury is still out on whether Krieghoff had any talent. His paintings do have their defenders. Writing in the New Brunswick Telegraph-Journal, Ian Lumsden, director of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, attacks the various "critics and Marxist art historians" who have savaged "the romanticized works of Krieghoff as being racist and exploitive of the natives and habitants, who have been so quaintly and condescendingly depicted for the edification and entertainment of the artist's English-speaking patrons." The artist Jerry Pethick, writing in Canadian Art, claims Krieghoff was "an informed and intelligent person . . . gifted as a visual artist. . . . He also had the sensibility and manners to socialize with a broad spectrum of society."
The anti-Krieghoff camp, unfortunately, argues with more conviction. The art critic for the right-leaning National Post, John Bentley Mays, calls Krieghoff a "hack," totally devoid of "creative imagination" and talent. Blake Gopnik, critic for the Globe and Mail, probably won't get a Christmas card from his boss for observing that "this paragon of Canadian art was a plain lousy painter." (His boss is the aforementioned Krieghoff collector Kenneth Thomson, owner of the Globe and Mail.) Christopher Hume, who writes for the Toronto Star, is a bit more descriptive, calling Krieghoff "a chocolate-box artist whose kitschy compositions come to us like a quaint series of postcards from a bygone age."
Reid, for his part, refuses to accept such criticism. Nor should he -- if the reason for the attacks is Krieghoff's lack of a properly postmodern vision of Canada. The painter seemed to believe in an underlying Canadian reality that was brave, unapologetic, and cheerful. Like other successful North American immigrant artists, Krieghoff gained the support of a strong anglophone community with artistic interests and great wealth. And this milieu helped determine what he painted. "Krieghoff's images of Canada are romantic, of another time, and in many ways about another place," Reid writes. "A Canada that in part existed only in his vision, and presumably in the hopes and beliefs of those who encouraged him."
His critics have argued ad nauseam that Krieghoff's paintings are nothing more than jovial misrepresentations of what was a thoroughly hard life for French Canadian immigrants and the native peoples. It's true that Krieghoff was enamored of the rustic beauty of the nineteenth-century French-Canadian countryside, but he also knew its volatile populace was ready to explode in a moment's notice over everything from a lack of food to forced work. Picturesque sleigh races were common. And so were bloody accidents and drunken driving.
Krieghoff saw Canadians as "selfassertive and proud, a people who often lived in harsh surroundings, but who did more than merely endure." His paintings are stocked with blue and red toques, sleighs, dogs, boisterous adults, and young children. The hardship of winter was a common theme, as was the joy and exuberance of being with family and friends.
Krieghoff portrayed the Indians, in particular, as heroic hunters and fishermen, surrounded by beautiful backdrops of open forests, mountains, water, and snow. Today's art critics typically see only the condescension, missing the fact that Krieghoff idealized Indians every bit as much as he idealized French Canadians. (While his white subjects were often depicted with alcohol, there is not a single example of alcohol in any of the native paintings.) Krieghoff also painted innumerable single-figure portraits of Indians during the Quebec years. Some subjects, such as an Indian trapper on snowshoes, were "produced very frequently, sometimes in virtually identical versions." The traveling exhibition has an entire wall devoted to these single-figure portraits.
The reason Krieghoff did so many of these paintings is, of course, that they were very popular with his patrons. And perhaps more than anything else, it is this scent of commercial success that so repels Canada's current crop of art critics. To churn out a large number of small portraits like a modern-day silk-screen artist smacks of mass production, free marketeering, and entrepreneurship -- everything they hate.
It is a pity that Krieghoff, who so loved Canada, should receive such shabby treatment from her art-scene scribblers. For though his talent may not have taken him much beyond the reach of Christmas cards, he deserved better than to have become a whipping boy for Canada's modern disease of anti-Canadian snobbery.
Michael Taube is a columnist for the Moncton Times & Transcript in Canada.