Canada's History

Ar­rival of the Cir­cus

circa 1919, Peter Clapham Shep­pard, oil on can­vas, 101.6 cm x 147.3 cm


At a time when his fel­low painters drew in­spi­ra­tion and a sense of pur­pose from the Cana­dian land­scape, Peter Clapham Shep­pard ap­plied his brush and the newly de­vel­oped mod­ernist tech­niques to the life and tu­mult of cities.

Shep­pard worked and ex­hib­ited along­side painters such as Lawren Har­ris, and he rep­re­sented Canada at in­ter­na­tional ex­hi­bi­tions. Yet his con­tri­bu­tions to Cana­dian art were largely for­got­ten — per­haps due to the promi­nence of the Group of Seven and of the nar­ra­tive link­ing Cana­dian art to the coun­try’s land­scape.

While Shep­pard’s home­town of Toronto was the set­ting for many of his works, he also painted in Mon­treal and New York. His sub­jects in­cluded ship­yards and rail yards, bridges and har­bours, beaches and street scenes. The Bridge Builders, Con­struc­tion, Bloor Street Viaduct, painted in 1915, shows labour­ers at a mas­sive en­gi­neer­ing project, while 1919’s The En­gine Home plays with colour and form.

In the new book Peter Clapham Shep­pard: His Life and Work, Tom Smart writes, “Shep­pard pre­ferred to con­cen­trate more on ex­press­ing the ab­stract po­ten­tial­i­ties rather than the purely pic­turesque qual­i­ties of a scene.” Some­how, in do­ing this, he also man­aged to bring to the fore the dy­namism of city life.

Ar­rival of the Cir­cus, a tableau por­tray­ing per­form­ers and ele­phants at the Cana­dian Na­tional Ex­hi­bi­tion, shows his ver­sa­til­ity. As in Shep­pard’s other paint­ings of the time, fig­ures are as loosely rep­re­sented as the ever-bil­low­ing smoke that spills into the ur­ban sky.

— Phil Koch

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