Cornelius Krieghoff was an industrious and self-taught artist whose paintings and prints spread an idealized vision of Canada across the globe. From postcards to decorative plates, Krieghoff's work is still reproduced for sale. From among a sea of forgeries, original signed paintings by Krieghoff are often appraised at more than $90,000 Canadian.(1)
The artist was born in Amsterdam in 1815, but spent most of his youth in Germany. Around 1837, Krieghoff immigrated to the United States. It was here that he met his wife Emilie, who was of French-Canadian descent. By 1840, the couple had moved to Quebec and Krieghoff began to paint, as well as do odd jobs to support his wife and newborn son. In 1844, Krieghoff accepted a portrait commission and produced his first professional paintings, entitled "William Williamson and his Son Alexander", and "Margaret Erskine Williamson and her Daughter Jessie".
Upon completion of these portraits, Krieghoff travelled to Paris where he studied for a year, copying the works of European masters. He returned to Canada in 1846, making his home in Montreal until he moved to Quebec City in 1853. Krieghoff's final years were spent abroad in Europe and Chicago, where he died in 1872.
Krieghoff's paintings depicting daily life in Canada are likened to genre paintings produced in the Dutch Golden Age, a time of intellectual freedom and exploration in 17th century Holland. Smooth linear forms, rich colours and crisp edges characterize the Dutch style. These artists were less interested in techniques that depicted texture or areas of chiaroscuro than most of their European counterparts at this time.
The humanist tradition that came from Renaissance Italy affected Dutch artists in their choice and treatment of subject matter. They were made famous for their work in landscape and genre scenes. Portrayals of everyday life in the home, fields and public houses of Europe became prolific and popular. Northern artists took genre scenes and added proverbial lessons that were easily understood by viewers. This combination of historical context and contemporary life made these proverbial paintings very popular with the bourgeoisie. A few centuries later, across the Atlantic, the paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff became popular with the same sort of middle class collector, as well as tourists who wanted a souvenir of Canada.