PAINT­ING AN IDYL­LIC PAST

The Hamilton Spectator - - GO - REGINA HAGGO Regina Haggo, art his­to­rian, pub­lic speaker, cu­ra­tor and for­mer pro­fes­sor at the Univer­sity of Can­ter­bury in New Zea­land, teaches at the Dun­das Val­ley School of Art. dhaggo@thes­pec.com

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.

PHO­TOS BY DOU­GLAS HAGGO

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.

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