Level 1: the European collection
The AGO possesses an eclectic sample of European fine and applied art, including ivory and alabaster pieces, illuminated manuscripts, exquisite cameos and fine porcelain, much of it the gift of the newspaper tycoon Kenneth Thomson, aka Lord Thomson of Fleet (1923–2006). Early paintings include some rather pedestrian Italian altarpieces, Pieter Brueghel the Younger’s incident-packed Peasant Wedding and a strong showing for Dutch painters of the Golden Age, including Rembrandt, Van Dyck, Frans Hals and Jan Van Goyen. Look out also for Rubens’ exquisite Massacre of the Innocents, a typically stirring canvas, whose writhing, muscular figures date to the middle of his career.
Level 2: Canadian eighteenth- and nineteenth-century painting
Distributed among forty numbered galleries on Level 2, the AGO has the finest collection of Canadian paintings in the world, but it’s arguable as to whether they are shown to best advantage: the galleries are organized chronologically, but not consistently, which can be a tad frustrating, and the collection is regularly rotated. From the eighteenth century, one particular highlight is a curiously unflattering Portrait of Joseph Brant by William Berczy. A Mohawk chief, Brant is shown in a mix of European and native gear, an apt reflection of his twin loyalties. From the early to mid-nineteenth century comes the cheery Passenger Pigeon Hunt by Antoine Plamondon and the bright and breezy The Ocean Bride leaving Halifax Harbour by John O’Brien, who specialized in maritime scenes. Equally enjoyable is the work of the prolific Cornelius Krieghoff. The AGO owns a large sample of Krieghoff’s paintings, including characteristic winter scenes like his Settler’s Log House and The Portage Aux Titres. Look out also for the canvases of one of the era’s most fascinating figures, Paul Kane, notably his Landscape in the Foothills with Buffalo Resting and At Buffalo Pound, where bison are pictured in what looks more like a placid German valley than a North American prairie.
Folksy and/or romanticized country scenes and landscapes ruled the Canadian artistic roost from the 1850s to the early twentieth century. By and large this was pretty routine stuff, but Homer Watson’s glossy Ontario landscapes, with their vigorous paintwork and dynamic compositions, made him a popular and much acclaimed artist – Queen Victoria even purchased one of his paintings, and Oscar Wilde dubbed him “the Canadian Constable”. The AGO possesses several Watson paintings, including the two handsome and well-composed canvases, The Old Mill and The Passing Storm, but his Death of Elaine – inspired by a Tennyson poem – is a bizarrely unsuccessful venture into ancient legend, the eponymous maiden looking something like a stick insect.
Level 2: Canada’s Group of Seven
A seminal work, the AGO’s West Wind by Tom Thomson is an iconic rendering of the northern wilderness that is perhaps the most famous of all Canadian paintings. Thomson was the first to approach the wilderness with the determination of an explorer and a sense that it could encapsulate a specifically Canadian identity. A substantial sample of his less familiar (but no less powerful) works are also part of the AGO collection, including the moody A Northern Lake, the Cubist-influenced Autumn Foliage 1915, the sticky dabs of colour of Maple Springs, and his Autumn’s Garland. There is also a whole battery of preparatory sketches of lakes and canyons, waterfalls and forests, each small panel displaying the vibrant, blotchy colours that characterize Thomson’s work.
One of the most distinctive artists of the Group of Seven was Lawren Harris, whose 1924 Above Lake Superior is also a pivotal work, its clarity of conception, with bare birch stumps framing a dark mountain beneath Art Deco clouds, quite exceptional. Equally stirring is his surreal Lake Superior, one of an army of paintings inspired by the wild, cold landscapes of the lake’s north shore. Harris was also partial to urban street scenes and the AGO has several – including two of Toronto – each painted in a careful pointillist style very different from his wilderness works.
A contemporary of the Group – but not a member – the gifted Emily Carr focused on the Canadian west coast in general, and its dense forests and native villages in particular, as in her dark and haunting Thunderbird and the deep green foliage of both Indian Church and Western Forest.
Level 2: the Henry Moore Sculpture Centre
The AGO owns the world’s largest collection of sculptures by Henry Moore (1898–1986), with the emphasis firmly on his plaster casts, alongside a few of his bronzes. Given a whole gallery, the sheer size and volume of Moore’s output is impressive, but it was something of an accident his work ended up here at all. In the 1960s, Moore thought London’s Tate Gallery was going to build a special wing for his work. When the Tate declined, Moore negotiated with the AGO instead, after being persuaded to do so by the gallery’s British representative, Anthony Blunt – the art expert who was famously uncovered as a Soviet spy in 1979.
Levels 4 and 5: contemporary art
Spread over two levels, the AGO’s collection of contemporary art showcases work by European, British and American artists from 1960 onwards. Around two hundred pieces are exhibited and they cover a wide range of media, from painting, sculpture and photography through to film and installation. The displays are changed fairly regularly, but prime pieces you can expect to see include Andy Warhol’s Elvis I and II, Mark Rothko’s No.1 White and Red and Claes Oldenburg’s Giant Hamburger.
The artist as epic traveller: Paul Kane
The artist as epic traveller: Paul Kane
Born in Ireland, Paul Kane migrated to Toronto in the early 1820s. In 1840, he returned to Europe, where, curiously enough, he was so impressed by a touring exhibition of paintings of the American Indian that he promptly decided to move back to Canada. In 1846, he wrangled a spot on a westward-bound fur-trading expedition, beginning an epic journey: he travelled from Thunder Bay to Edmonton by canoe, crossed the Rockies by horse, and finally returned to Toronto two years later. During his trip, Kane made some seven hundred sketches, which he then painted onto canvas, paper and cardboard. Like many early Canadian artists, Kane’s paintings often displayed a conflict in subject and style – the subject was North American but the style European; indeed, it wasn’t until the Group of Seven that a true Canadian aesthetic emerged. In 1859, Kane published Wanderings of an Artist among the Indian Tribes of North America, the story of his long travels. It includes this account of Christmas dinner at Fort Edmonton: “At the head, before Mr Harriett, was a large dish of boiled buffalo hump; at the foot smoked a boiled buffalo calf… one of the most esteemed dishes among the epicures of the interior. My pleasing duty was to help a dish of mouffle, or dried moose nose, [while] the worthy priest helped the buffalo tongue and Mr Randall cut up the beaver’s tails… Such was our jolly Christmas dinner at Edmonton.”
The artist defeated: Cornelius Krieghoff
The artist defeated: Cornelius Krieghoff
Born in Amsterdam, Cornelius Krieghoff trained as an artist in Düsseldorf before emigrating to New York, where, at the age of just 21, he joined the US Army, serving in the Second Seminole War in Florida. Discharged in 1840, Krieghoff immediately re-enlisted, claimed three months’ advance pay and deserted, hot-footing it to Montréal with the French-Canadian woman he had met and married in New York. In Montréal, he picked up his brushes again, but without any commercial success – quite simply no one wanted to buy his paintings. That might have been the end of the matter, but Krieghoff moved to Québec City in 1852 and here he found a ready market for his paintings among the well-heeled officers of the British garrison, who liked his folksy renditions of Québec rural life. This was the start of Krieghoff’s most productive period and over the next eight years he churned out dozens of souvenir pictures – finely detailed, anecdotal scenes that are his best work. In the early 1860s, however – and for reasons that remain obscure – he temporarily packed in painting, returning to Europe for five years before another stint in Québec City, though this time, with the officer corps gone, he failed to sell his work. In 1871, he went to live with his daughter in Chicago and died there the following year, a defeated man.
The Group of Seven
The Group of Seven
In the autumn of 1912, a commercial artist by the name of Tom Thomson returned from an extended trip to the Mississauga country, north of Georgian Bay, with a bag full of sketches that were to add new momentum to Canadian art. His friends, many of whom were fellow employees of the art firm of Grip Ltd in Toronto, saw Thomson’s naturalistic approach to indigenous subject matter as a pointer away from the influence of Europe, declaring the “northland” as the true Canadian “painter’s country”. World War I and the death of Thomson – who drowned in 1917 – delayed these artists’ ambitions, but in 1920 they formed the Group of Seven. Initially, the group comprised Franklin H. Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Arthur Lismer, J.E.H. MacDonald, F.H. Varley and Frank Johnston; later, they were joined by A.J. Casson, LeMoine Fitzgerald and Edwin Holgate. Working under the unofficial leadership of Harris, they explored the wilds of Algoma in northern Ontario, travelling around in a converted freight car, and later foraged even further afield, from Newfoundland and Baffin Island to British Columbia.
They were immediately successful, staging forty shows in eleven years, a triumph due in large part to Harris’s many influential contacts. Yet there was also a genuine popular response to the intrepid frontiersman element of their aesthetic. Art was a matter of “taking to the road” and “risking all for the glory of a great adventure”, as they wrote in 1922, while “nature was the measure of a man’s stature”, according to Lismer. Symbolic of struggle against the elements, the Group’s favourite symbol was the lone pine set against the sky, an image whose authenticity was confirmed by reference to the “manly” poetry of Walt Whitman.
The legacy of the Group of Seven was – and perhaps still is – double-edged. On the one hand, they established the autonomy of Canadian art, but on the other their contribution was soon institutionalized, and well into the 1950s it was difficult for Canadian painters to establish an identity that didn’t conform to the Group’s precepts. Despite the Group’s unpopularity among many later painters, Ontario artist Graham Coughtry (1931–99) was, for one, generous: “They are the closest we’ve ever come to having some kind of romantic heroes in Canadian painting.”