Thursday, July 24, 2014

(No.269) William Blair Bruce at the Art Gallery of Hamilton

"William Blair Bruce at the Art Gallery of Hamilton" 

by Alastair Rickard

Among the art galleries Pat and I enjoy visiting is the Art Gallery of Hamilton (AGH) in Hamilton, Ontario.

The AGH is marking its 100th birthday this year with two special exhibitions: "Into The Light: the paintings of William Blair Bruce" and "Art For a Century: 100 for the 100th".

The establishment of the Art Gallery of Hamilton a century ago was prompted by a donation of 29 paintings by the widow of the Canadian artist William Blair Bruce who had died in 1906. Today the other main holding of Bruce's art is at his former home Brucebo on the Swedish island of Gotland. In the late 1880s 200 of his paintings being transported back to Canada were lost when the shop carrying them sank off Anticosti Island.

The 100 works in the exhibition "Art For a Century" have been selected as a representative sample of the works in the AGH's permanent collection.

William Blair Bruce was born in Hamilton in 1859 but spent much of his life as a painter in Europe, particularly France and Sweden. He had married the Swedish sculptor Caroline Benedicks who outlived him by almost 30 years.

Bruce was a talented painter and deserves to be better known in his own country than he is. He has been described as first and foremost a landscape painter although as I went through the exhibition this label seems to me somewhat misleading.

Both his subjects and his styles were wide ranging including prominent attention to people and seascapes. He even painted scenes around Giverny in Normandy where he was among the first group of American artists who rented a house in Giverny near the residence of the (by then) famous Claude Monet -- a movement of aspiring artists to the area which became something of a flood in subsequent years.

The AGH's special exhibition of Bruce's work was organized by the gallery's senior curator Tobi Bruce (no relation to the artist). It is extensive and displays the fascinating range through the years of his subjects and the evolution of his artistic styles; I use the plural deliberately.

From a large work "Summer Day" (1890) featuring his wife and sister in a setting outside Grez-sur-loing in France to a small painting "Parliament House" (1903) through "Portrait of Chief Red Cloud" (1905) and a Baltic Sea scene "Baltic In Winter"(1900-06) the variety in his subjects and painting is interesting.

In Bruce's styles in his different works I think can be seen the reflections and influences of more than just the French impressionists; also Canada's Homer Watson (q.v., "Chedoke Ravine", 1890) even England's J.M.W. Turner among others. There is a view that Bruce's not staying with 'impressionism' accounts for his not enjoying today a higher standing among Canadian painters. Perhaps so, given the idiosyncratic nature of art criticism but in fact the breadth of Bruce's artistic talent was impressive.

The AGH's "Into the Light" is a very interesting exhibition, one that has been expertly curated and makes a real contribution to appreciation of a neglected Canadian painter.

The second of the AGH's centennial exhibitions "Art For a Century" is a delightful collection of 100 works by many  Canadian and a number of mainly European artists selected from the Gallery's permanent collection, one that has been enhanced in recent years by donations of art from their own impressive collection by Joey and Toby Tannenbaum.

European artists, especially French painters, are well represented by -- for example -- works by Pissarro, Courbet, Pichot and by an 1879 painting by one of my favourite painters Jacques Joseph (aka James) Tissot (1836-1902) "Croquet". Any day I can view a Tissot up close is a special occasion for me.

Marvellous paintings by a wide range of Canadians have been selected, too many to list here. They include the Group of Seven, Emily Carr (one of Pat's favourites), William Kurelek, Alex Colville, Paul-Emile Borduas, Jean-Paul Riopelle and on and on.

"Art For A Century" is a fascinating and enjoyable tour through art drawn from the 19th and 20th centuries.


These two exhibitions combine to provide the visitor to the Art Gallery of Hamilton with a worthwhile time. "Into The Light" is on through Oct. 5, 2014 and "Art For A Century" until Feb.22, 2015.

Details of these two Art Gallery of Hamilton exhibitions can be obtained at the gallery's website:



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