The Magazine

O Canada!

The assault on Cornelius Krieghoff, Canada's national painter

Nov 13, 2000, Vol. 6, No. 09 • By MICHAEL TAUBE
Widget tooltip
Single Page Print Larger Text Smaller Text Alerts

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.