L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia
Horatio Walker and His Art
[This article was written in 1902; for the exact reference, see the end of the document.]
CANADA has not produced many great artists, but there are some worthy of better recognition than they have yet received. A short time ago, a New York connoisseur remarked: "You will wake some morning, you Canadians, to find what a great man you have to be proud of in Horatio Walker." Perhaps the same might be said of us in connection with several other artists; but it is certain that the work of Horatio Walker is more talked about in the United States and England than it is in Canada .
Outside of Montreal Mr. Walker's work is little known, for the simple reason that it has not been shown. Urged by his friends he held an exhibition of his work in the Art Gallery of that city in 1900, there being at the same time a loan exhibit of the work of the three Maris brothers in the Gallery. However odious comparisons are, they will be made, voluntarily or involuntarily, and this instance proved no exception. But our artist offered nothing by juxtaposition with the world famous Dutchmen. The intense individuality of his work was no echo or imitation; it was the utterance of one who had seen and felt and learned; who had known "the artist's hunger and thirst, and the things that give him peace."
Because Mr. Walker's pictures have been little exhibited here, the lack of appreciation of, or rather better acquaintance with, the work of one of our fellow countrymen, who is well known elsewhere, must be forgiven, but at least it need not continue. Our cousins over the line have grown to appreciate him, thinking, perhaps, that we are not overwise in things of art. This good opinion might be best shown by a quotation from one of the keenest art critics of the New York press, who has this to say with regard to one of Mr. Walker's pictures, The First Gleam :
Horatio Walker was born at Listowel, Ont., in 1858. His art career began while yet a boy, when he had a habit of sketching at odd times with all sorts and conditions of material. His training in art is very simply stated : it consisted of the old-fashioned process of going to nature, and the other process, equally old, of keeping on and on and on. The first pictures, real oil paintings, he ever saw were in Toronto , in 1872. They proved most unsatisfactory to the art-hungry youth to whom they gave nothing but the keenest disappointment, his instinct telling him these were not that for which he longed. Later, in the same city he saw a number of old English pictures which were as a shower in a desert ; as water to a thirsty soul.
Continued work from nature brought increased power to the young artist. He moved to Rochester , N. Y., but did not yet devote all his time to study ; this came later, as the demands of art became more imperative, and the interest in it more absorbing, but at no time did he work in any studio or place himself under any master. As with most of the great landscape painters, he was compelled to find his own way of expression. Occasionally a picture was attempted, but for a time without success ; still, whether discouraged or elated, the persevering student never ceased work. The result of this may be seen now in slight sketch or finished picture. From these the student will learn that success is not attained as the result of superficial observation and clever handling; it comes of continuous searchings, strivings, and close application.
At last, in 1883, came the turning in the long lane, the first distinct success met with, and since that time no year has passed in which one or two canvases have not been exhibited, which have from year to year shown a growing mastery of technique, and of penetrating subtilty [sic].
One who knows Mr. Walker well, both before and after the turning of fortune's tide, and who was with him much, tells of long days spent in sketching ; of tramps afar in search of subjects for anatomical study, the dead body of a horse or cow or sheep ; of busy days in the studio when the artist worked in a cloud of smoke, always quite alone ; of over-elaborated studies, in which every detail was carefully noted, that appeared in the complete picture broadly brushed in - a matter of suppression and selection which only thorough knowledge could achieve. To those familiar with the colour sense shown in Mr. Walker's later pictures it may seem strange to know that in his earlier work that first attracted attention there was little colour, "it just escaped being in black and white." A final remark sums the secret of Mr. Walker's charm - "He felt everything so : he could paint the very soul of an ox !"
For his motive Mr. Walker from the first has gone to the peasant of his own country. Not the up-to-date farmer of the west, neither the pioneer nor the man from "way back," nor yet the owner of many acres and city culture ; none of these has he sought, but the French peasant, the habitant of the Province of Quebec, whose life, dress and manner of living are of the simplest, who in many ways is now where his French ancestors of two centuries ago stood. "The habitant has manners," Gilbert Parker tells us ; he has besides a warm heart and much trust in those he deems worthy. Among this people Mr. Walker has made his home on the Ile d'Orleans, where he lives and works the greater part of the year and here he is looked up to by the farmers with unlimited veneration for his art and affection for himself. To oblige their friend they will hasten or delay the ploughing of a field ; and they will change or modify the daily routine of work to suit artistic demands with the greatest good will and interest in the undertaking.
There is a story of a French peasant from the island who was in Quebec on business and who, happening, to look in a bookseller's window, espied in a number of Harper's Weekly a reproduction of one of Mr. Walker's pictures, a ploughing scene in the early morning. His attention was arrested - the field certainly looked strangely familiar, surely he knew those oxen ; and that man's figure - who but himself! It was wonderful! To think all this should be in this great paper of another country ! Delighted, he bought up all the copies for sale there, that his friends might have his pleasure in his own importance and his enthusiasm for their artist in his picture.
Mr. Walker was made a member of Society of American Artists in 1887, a full member of the National Academy in 1891, is a member of the Water-Colour Society and also of the British Institute of Painters in Water-Colours, has been the winner of a gold medal at Chicago , of the Webb prize at the National Academy and other honours. In 1901 he exhibited in the Royal Academy, England, at which time the Art Journal, among its thirty-six reproductions of the leading, pictures of the year included one by our artist, and its criticism was:
With regard to the artist's scope and ability there remains much to be said. He is not a painter of incident only, nor does he strive to give a correct map of some part of the earth. He is a deep thinker ; his attitude is reverential ; the landscape, the cattle, the people, all nature, are but the language for the utterance of a truth, of an idea, of the infinite. Each picture is the resuit of some thought, some strenuous feeling to which he seeks to give expression ; it follows that there is no repetition, each picture is a separate and individual creation. Nor may there be any haste in finishing. One canvas we know of has been carried every summer for eight years to the Canadian sketching grounds that when opportunity offers for the requisite effect of time and lighting something may be added. No pecuniary consideration could induce the artist to let a canvas go until he was satisfied he had given it his utmost.
Sometimes one must acknowledge the drawing uncouth, or the use of the pigment hasty and crude, but the result is always honest, the product of no trifler, but of a serious gifted man. Perhaps a remark of the artist may be a key to the better understanding of one who is usually silent about what he feels most, and who has little to say about art and his own work, "I have two patron saints, Michael Angelo and Turner." To the immense strength and intense feeling of the one, and the magnificent colour sense of the other, there is that in him which has responded as deep to deep. The subject of Mr. Walker's pictures are mainly pastoral ; they appeal to the elemental in us as do Homer's tales or the story of Jacob and his flocks and his long service of love. The intense repose, the large suggestiveness, of many of them recall the breadth of Troyon ; they seem in sharp contrast to our modern unrest and triviality.
In a large canvas, Morning, a flock of sheep have just emerged from the shed and are beginning to disperse through the meadow. The dew glistens on the grass and the cold feeling of early morning is in the air, the light is quickening in the eastern sky but has not yet penetrated the shade of these trees. Gradually, as you give yourself sympathetically to the understanding of the painting, its meanings unfold, you appreciate the chill of the dawn, the first stirrings of the daily round of toil, the subtlety with which the great expanse of meadow is indicated, the charm of the cool green tones, the drawing of the sheep at once characteristic and broad. This reserve is one of the marked things in Mr. Walker's work ; he does not tell you everything at once. It is all there as in nature, but the artist's purpose only comes to you gradually, bit by bit.
There are other subjects pleasant to recall - a sheep-washing in a shady pool in the foreground with a sunny vista showing beyond ; massive oxen standing with patient heads against the drinking trough, a drifting sky overhead ; a habitant felling a tree in the dim woods ; a pastoral with the unpoetical pig to the fore ; a limekiln seen by moonlight, the conflicting lights making an interesting problem ; a careworn peasant woman who drives home her cow in the glow of evening, stopping reverently before the wayside shrine and bowing in simple faith.
There is in these none of the pitifulness, the hopelessness of Millet's peasant, although the comparison has been made. Rather Mr. Walker has expressed something of the pathos and tenderness to be seen in Israels' work, though with a dignity quite his own. They are alike in discovering to us the beauty of the daily routine of life with its homely joys and cares.
During the last part of January and the first of February this year Mr. Walker held an exhibition of a number of his newer pictures, the best collection of his best work yet seen, at the Montross Gallery, Fifth avenue, New York .
There is a sentence of John Addington Symmonds, in speaking of Michael Angelo, which might be applied to our artist's work in a degree. He says of certain of the great Italian's creations, "they became to him the hieroglyphs of his impassioned utterance." So here, whether the "hieroglyph" be landscape, figure, tree, or some effect of light, there is always the mind "to see through nature, to pass beyond the actual to the abstract, and to use reality only as a stepping-stone to the ideal."
Source: M. L. FAIRBAIRN, "Horatio Walker and His Art", in Canadian Magazine, Vol. XVIII, No 6 (April, 1902): 494-500.
© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College