PAINTING AN IDYLLIC PAST
Early immigrants and visitors to this area were keen observers of the land. Some of their observations were far from complimentary.
Anna Jameson hired a wagon to take her from Hamilton to Brantford.
“I remember a space of about three miles on this road bordered entirely on each side by dead trees artificially blasted by fire,” she wrote in 1839.
But when Robert Reginald Whale, another new arrival, recorded his southern Ontario surroundings, he painted idyllic views. He is best known for his big paintings of Hamilton, Dundas and Niagara Falls.
The Whale Dynasty, an exhibition at the Dundas Museum and Archives, offers landscape paintings by Whale and a few works by other members of his family. The exhibition also includes subjects Whale is not so wellknown for: portraits and images of animals.
Born in England in 1805, Whale immigrated to Canada West (now Ontario) with his wife and children in 1852. The f amily lived first in Burford and then Brantford. Two sons, John Claude Whale and Robert Heard Whale, and a nephew, John Hicks Whale, became artists.
Whale was a contemporary of other immi- grant painters including Cornelius Krieghoff and Paul Kane who set out to paint Canada from a Romanticist perspective.
That is, they embraced nature in all its moods, from savage to soothing.
In Europe at the same time modernists began to embrace a sunny palette, a sketchy style and simpler compositions. Canadian art lovers, however, demanded something more traditional, lifelike, idealized and complex.
Whale’s “Deer in a Forest Glen” fits the bill. Water tumbles over dangerous-looking rocks and overgrown vegetation in the foreground, challenging our entry into the painting.
Whale suggests no humans have been here, thus creating an image of an uninhabited land. Living and dying trees remind us of nature’s cycle of life and death.
A stag stands among abundant wildflowers under a sparse tree on the right. Three deer idle f arther back near the edge of the creek. Cliffs flank a ribbon waterfall in the distance, bathed by a soft, luminous light, the kind found in 17th-century European paintings.
Whale made a name for himself as a landscape painter. He supplemented his income by painting portraits, a good earner for any artist.
In “Portrait of a Young Woman in a Red Velvet Dress,” Whale, like many portraitists of his era, reveals his sitter’s character to us. He succinctly depicts her as both modest and thoughtful.
She modestly avoids the viewer’s gaze by turning her head toward our left. As she does, she appears to be looking at the flower-filled glass vase on the marble table.
Her hand-to-chin pose is a traditional gesture of thought. And flowers in art have always been loaded with profound symbolism. Contemplating flowers, for instance, led to thoughts about physical beauty and how fast this type of beauty fades.
Is this what our youthful sitter might be thinking?
Whale’s “The Frog and the Fawn” draws attention to nature’s beauty with its elegant deer in a highly naturalistic setting.
The deer dominates the composition, but turns its head to the tiny frog in the water so we don’t miss it.
Whale died 130 years ago, in July 1887.
Robert Reginald Whale, Deer in a Forest Glen, second half of the 19th century, oil on canvas.
Robert Reginald Whale, The Frog and the Fawn, circa 1850, oil on canvas.
Below: Robert Reginald Whale, Portrait of a Young Woman in a Red Velvet Dress, second half of the 19th century, oil on canvas.