Canadian Landscape Painting: Images of Everyday Life

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Introduction

Canadian Landscape Painting: Images of Everyday Life

Early Canadian artists' paintings illustrated the richness of the vast Canadian landscape and everyday life in the early settlements. James Cockburn is a Canadian artist who captured the allure of the nation and the simple beauty of life in Quebec with his watercolours. There is a variety of reasons that Cockburn and other artists like him, such as Thomas Davies, carefully chose the subject matter that they did. Cockburn's art can also be compared to earlier British landscape painting, like that of Paul Sandby. Being an artist in Canada in the 19th century during the earliest days of the nation, James Cockburn was able to create beautiful images of day to day life and the scenery he found around him on a regular basis. Cockburn, and other early artists like him, provide us with images of Canada in the beginning through their masterful watercolours and careful attention to detail.
Like many landscape artists of the time, James Cockburn was trained as a British army officer (Ramezay Museum, 2000). Cockburn was a military artist, which "is a person enlisted in a nation's army or navy who has been trained to create visual documents" (Burant, 1988, p. 33). Military officers were often trained as artists to visually describe the landscapes that they were trying to conquer. The soldiers were well-trained and able to produce recognizable, accurate landscapes. The paintings were often done in watercolour, which was a medium that was easy to transport as well as quick to create, but they were also done as drawings or prints. Oil painting was never done in these circumstances because it was a slow process, the materials were expensive, and difficult to maintain and transport (Burant, 1988, p. 34). British trained military officers painted their images on paper in small notebooks because it was lighter and easier to transport (Burant, 1988, p. 34). Artists, such as James Cockburn, were trained in academies to pay attention to detail and to attempt to create the most factually accurate images possible. British artist Paul Sandby is another example of a military trained artist. He was the drawing master at the Royal Military Academy at Woolwich (Crowley, 2005, pp. 1-26). The Royal Military Academy trained many artists, and Sandby taught his belief in the importance of paying attention to detail and representing each subject with accuracy. Sandby's earlier work can be compared with some of James Cockburn's Canadian landscapes.
Paul Sandby "created works of topographic landscape art informing the metropolitan viewing public of [Britain's] new imperial domains" (Crowley, 2005, p. 8). Sandby travelled to Scotland and created paintings of the Scottish Highlands with great attention to detail (Crowley, 2005, p. 8). Paul Sandby was an artist who favoured factual representation. His preference for accuracy in every component of his pieces is demonstrated in his painting, "An Ancient Beach Tree." Done in 1794, the painting has a great deal of colour and each item in it seems meticulously painted. The tree is intricately painted with its myriad of curves and twists shown in detail with each branch getting the same amount of care and attention. Compared to James Cockburn's landscape paintings and drawings, Sandby's appear brighter and more intricate. Cockburn's "Niagara from Goat Island" is similar in technical detail to Sandby's "Ancient Beach Tree," but it is lacking the obsessive careful attention to each piece of the image that Sandby's piece has.
When considering the images of early Canadian landscape it is important to note the style that almost all military artists shared. They were trained to paint in a topographical manner, which is to 'paint it like you see it.' There was little emotional input in the military pieces as they were mostly attempting to create perfect recreations of the land and the scenery around them. Topographical art is very picturesque as it is full of variety and incident, but at the same time it is casual. The picturesque was the most common form that the topographical paintings took on because "British artists increasingly took an interest in their country's scenery" (Crowley, 2005, p. 5). Many of the topographical paintings were created for the British people so that they could see the new territories. It "helped Britons visualize their new Canadian landscape in the broad context of a North American empire" (Crowley, 2005, p. 18). It is also important to note why exactly these early landscape artists in Canada chose the subject matter that they did.
In the Canadian landscapes of James Cockburn and Thomas Davies, and even in the paintings of Paul Sandby, there are a few common themes that run through them. For Davies and Cockburn waterfalls were a common subject that would appear again and again. Davies was also trained as a military artist and took particular interest in waterfalls as a subject and drew "fiercely illuminated nocturnal scene[s]" of a waterfalls, which gave his paintings a sense of awe, making them sublime as well as picturesque (Crowley, 2005, p. 12). James Cockburn also painted several watercolours of falls, like "Chaudière Falls, 23 kilometres below Quebec," and, "Niagara from Goat Island." Along with the waterfalls and other forest scenes, Cockburn also depicted daily life in Quebec. Cockburn visited Quebec city from 1821-1823 and traveled to other parts of the area for many years, and in that time he created several paintings of the city and army barracks (Ramezay Museum, 2000). These artists chose to paint this subject matter because it was what they saw on a day to day basis. Because they were military artists, they were trained to paint what they saw. Their scenes were drawn first hand, on the spot, to give visual authenticity (Crowley, 2005, p. 1).The landscape paintings were also created in order to give people in Britain an idea of the new territories that were being settled.
Many of the early landscape artists in Canada were trained by the military to create accurate, detailed representations of the country in which they were situated. These artists, like James Cockburn and Thomas Davies, are responsible for many images that illustrated the true beauty and vastness of the Canadian landscape in the 1800s. James Cockburn painted a picture of everyday life in Quebec and allowed the viewer to truly get a sense of what it was like to live in Canada in the 19th century. Cockburn also created numerous images of the scenery that he was exposed to when in Quebec, giving other people in Britain at the time a view of the newly discovered lands. The paintings of early Canadian artists have given us images of a world that is rarely experienced, Canada at its beginning in its purest form shown with accuracy and great detail.