ARHI301LChristianson - Berczy

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Introduction

William Berczy's art is largely Canadian subject matter, influenced by the European tradition from which Berczy came. Not only that, but it is Canadian art not exclusively influenced by the French and English conventions, but by other European backgrounds. Although Berczy produced a great many skilful and beautiful portraits, his great masterpieces truly reflect his European training; particularly The Woolsey Family, 1809; Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), 1807; and William McGillivray and His Family, 1805-1806.
Berczy was born in Wallerstein Swabia (now Germany) the son of a German diplomat. His father's duties took him to Vienna where he eventually studied art at the Akademie der Bildenden Künste in 1762. In 1766 he also studied at the University of Jena in Germany. Following that, he travelled extensively in Poland, Hungary, Croatia, Rome, Berne, Florence, and Naples working as an itinerant miniaturist. (Macdonald, Dictionary of Canadian Artists online). His artistic idols at this time included Johann Zoffany, a German-born, British, group portrait artist (Macdonald, Dictionary of Canadian Artists Online).
During this time period Berczy was a recognized and respected artist in many fields. Many of his works were displayed in the Royal Academy of Arts in London (Stagg, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online). One of Berczy's notable portraits from this time period is of Maria-Therese, Archduchess of Tuscany, 1782-1287 (see first painting). That he was granted the privilege of painting a member of the royal family is proof of his skill and respect as an artist, allowing him the chance to show off the skills that he had. It is a detailed work. He takes great care in painting both her dress, which is quite exquisite, and the striking red curtain and chair behind her. She is pictured with a book and some flowers, and the whole scene is framed by a stone window frame, which Berczy has clearly taken a great deal of time perfecting. The cracks in the stone and the surrounding brick makes it very realistic, as well, it highlights his ability to create an image with depth. This image, like many of Berczy's contains neo-classical elements, which was a popular movement at the time (Stagg, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online). Neo-classicism was a movement that sought to create a 'true style'. It was basically a return to the artistic characteristics of the Greek and Roman times. This included heroic art and sculpture. It was about grand and luxurious architecture and furnishings, particularly favouring deep red and black colours (Wilton-Ely, "Neo-Classicism", Oxford Art Online). It is seen in this painting by the elaborate stone window, grand red curtains, and a magnificent blue dress. The Royal Society of Arts, a neo-classical institution, encouraged the importance of education and enlightenment thinking; especially in the education of artists (Wilton-Ely, "Neo-Classicism", Oxford Art Online). The book on the table next to the Archduchess is a likely reflection of her high education.
These neo-classical elements were applied several times by Berczy in many of his larger Canadian paintings, as will be discussed.
Berczy came to North America in 1792, leading a group of Germans to colonize and develop New York lands for an English company. After several disagreements and perceived unfair treatment, Berczy eventually led these Germans into Upper Canada, founding a settlement in York around Yonge Street (in what is now Toronto) (Berchem, The Yonge Street Story: An Account from Letters, Diaries and Newspapers, 1793-1860, 1996: 23-37). From 1803 onwards his only means of income was as a portrait artist. Based in Montreal he was considered to be one of the best painters in both Upper and Lower Canada (Béland, "Berczy, William (von Moll)" in Oxford Art Online).
In many of the solo portraits that were done by Berczy at this time one can see that his past experience as a miniaturist in Europe served him well. Many of the works are quite small, especially those that are pendants. Three examples of these types of works include Charlotte Hermine-Louise Catherine D'irumberry de Salaberry, c. 1809 (see second painting); James McGill, 1805-1811 (see third painting); and John Dillon, 1803-1813 (see fourth painting). Berczy accepted work from a variety of people. This type of portrait would have had sentimental value to those being painted and to their loved ones. Berczy painted some larger solo portraits as well, for example of Jean-Baptiste-Melchoir Hertel de Rouville, c. 1810 (see fifth painting) and of Marie-Anne Hervieux Hertel de Rouville, c. 1810 (see sixth painting). These are all beautiful portraits that are well done, but without a context for the people portrayed it is difficult to derive anything beyond this.
William Berczy's masterpieces contained the skilfulness and the detail of these previously mentioned works, but they also contained something more, elements that make them truly memorable, allowing viewers to discover something deeper about the people in the paintings. Part of that has to do with their larger scale and inclusion of more detail. But a lot of it also has to do with three elements/techniques that Berczy was able to draw on as a result of his European background. These three were very significant in European compositions of the time; conversation pieces, neo-classical ideology, and to a lesser extent humanist ideology.
William McGillivray and His Family, 1805-1806 (see seventh painting) is a conversation piece by Berczy. A conversation piece is a full length portrait, containing figures of family or friends at leisure. Usually they are depicted in a domestic setting or a landscape. The scenes depicted are informal. (Rodgers, "Conversation Piece" in Oxford Art Online). This is a style of art that was especially popular in England during the 18th century. Some of the earliest European conversation pieces would include Rembrandt's Jan Rijcksen and his Wife, Griet Jans, 1632. By 1730 a conversation piece was widely understood to be an informal portrait, distinct from the traditional ceremonial portrait of the Renaissance (D'Oench, "Conversation Piece" in Oxford Art Online). William McGillivray and His Family is definitely a conversation piece. The family is candidly depicted in a country setting. The man holds a gun in one hand while proudly displaying his kill to his wife (who is holding the baby) sitting beside him. It is obvious that this is a casual scene, as the man's hat lies at his feet, and the figures appear content with the dogs resting at their feet. Interestingly dogs were significant in art at this time because many people in the period kept dogs, and they also would have been added to the painting at an additional cost, so they are basically a further display of the wealth and importance of the people depicted in the painting (Noël, Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 1780-1870: A View From and Family Correspondence, 2003: 155).
Another of Berczy's conversation pieces, and also his most famous masterpiece is The Woolsey Family, 1809 (see eighth painting). This piece has been described by an art historian called Dennis Reid as "one of the few exceptional Canadian paintings of the first half of the century." (Stagg, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online).
The painting complies with the European understanding of what a conversation piece should be. The family is depicted in a domestic interior setting. The scene is leisurely, and the window in the background is opened upon a beautiful landscape on a calm sunny day. In the painting John Woolsey (a wealthy Quebec merchant) is the standing figure. He gazes down upon his wife, Julie Lemoine Despins who is holding the baby, John Bryan. The oldest son, William Darley is reading in a chair on the left side of the portrait. Another son, William Henry, is playing with the family dog. The daughter Eleonora is playing with a hoop and a doll. John's brother-in law sits by the window with a flute. And his mother, Marie Josephette Trefflé Rottot, is seated at the table to the right of her son (Murray, "William Berczy", at Microsoft Encarta Online Encyclopedia 2008). Also depicted is the dog, just as in William McGillivray and His Family, however the difference is that in this case, Berczy agreed to paint the dog for free (Noël, Family Life and Sociability in Upper and Lower Canada, 2003: 155).
The goal of a conversation piece is to capture one, apparently spontaneous, moment in time. In reality a painting of this magnitude would have taken a great deal of time. Therefore Berczy painted each individual separately before placing all of the figures together in this painting (for an example see, Study for "The Woolsey Family": Eleonora Woolsey, 1808; ninth painting). By undertaking the painting in such a way, perhaps the setting appears quite staged, but it also allowed Berczy to capture more of the personalities of each of the members of the family. The scene is not exactly natural, but there is a sense of contentment on the faces of all the family.
Berczy, in this painting is able to show off his technical skills as an artist by including a very detailed architectural setting as well as by painting the beautiful clothes of each of the family members in stunning colour and detail. These are the marks of highly educated artists, very important in neo-classicism. This piece is influenced by several neo-classical elements. First by the grandeur of the architectural setting and the care taken in its depiction; from the large mirror on the left side, to the fireplace in the background, to the elaborate detail and colour of the floor; this was meant to suggest something of the wealth and sophistication of the family as well as the comfort in which their social status allowed them to live (New, Land Sliding: Imagining Space, Presence, and Power in Canadian Writing, 1997: 92). Also depicted are several items which represent the education of the family. One son with his book, the brother in law with his flute, the papers on the table, and even the daughter's hoop and doll are all things that imply education and self-betterment. The father is depicted as the centre of the family both figuratively and literally. He stands in the centre and the painting comes in from both sides to the top of his head, forming a triangle. He is surrounded by his family and all of the things that he can offer them.
Thayendanegea (Joseph Brant), 1802-1812 (see tenth painting) is another portrait by Berczy, but it differs in many ways from the portraits discussed earlier because of its obvious humanist influences, as well as being a full length portrait with a background setting included. Humanism is an idea that predates Berczy by centuries. It originated in the Renaissance. Humanist thought is an emphasis on human dignity, freedom, autonomy, tolerance, humanitarianism, and appreciation of the sensory and historical world. Humanists artistically emphasized those virtues and deeds that make a mark on human history and are heroic (Duke, "Humanism", in Oxford Online). In this portrait Joseph Brant is clearly exalted and is meant to be portrayed as a person of great status. Berczy was especially concerned with giving Brant's face a sculptural essence (Lesser, "William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant", The National Gallery: Annual Bulletin 6, 1982-1983). He is like a Roman or Greek hero, with a kind, yet commanding presence. The land that he stands on and the land in the background appears untouched by human civilization, and one gets the impression that Brant has mastered this land, and he alone has the authority to decide who enters it and who does not, that may be why he is pointing. This humanist painting mixes with Berczy's neo-classical learning because it is primarily a painting of a heroic, free, individual, who is master of the land around him; but it is also technically very impressive that he is able to give his figure a statuesque quality, and depict the landscape with such impressive detail, even adding a splash of pink colour in the clouds (Lesser, "William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant.").
Brant is almost an overlarge figure and is dressed in a ceremonial manner. Common in humanism and neo-classicism, is mythology (particularly that which pertains to self-perfection and heroism) and this native man portrayed in a statuesque manner, while still wearing traditional native clothes helps to give him a more foreign and mythical quality (Lesser, "William Berczy's Portraits of Joseph Brant").
William Berczy had many European influences on his Canadian art. This began with his primary training and work as a miniaturist and portraitist. As he moved around Europe he was exposed to two important ideologies, neo-classicism and humanism, the concepts of which are also recurring in some of his more important portraits. And while in Europe he was also introduced to a method known as conversation portraiture, eventually his greatest masterpiece would be a product of this style.