Quebec History Marianopolis College

Date Published:
June 2005

L’Encyclopédie de l’histoire du Québec / The Quebec History Encyclopedia


Horatio Walker: Painter of the Habitant



[This article was written in 1919; for the eact reference, see the end of the text.]

LATE in the summer of 1870, an impressionable boy from Ontario was making his first visit to the old city of Quebec. His father had brought a shipment of timber to Wolfe's Cove, now marked by rotting docks, but then a lumber mart for two continents. As the lad drew into Quebec he was astonished to see a flotilla of fur-laden canoes manned by Montagnais Indians from the Lower St. Lawrence. The spectacle seemed like a page from Parkman himself.


"How I would like to live here," said the boy.


It was Horatio Walker's first glimpse of the land he was to perpetuate in paint for future generations. The Canada of yesterday had gripped him it has held him ever since and made him its supreme artist-interpreter. Others have come and gone, on visits or vacations; he has set up his home and spent his life in the very midst of the habitants. He came while rural life was yet primitive and unspoiled; he sighs now as the old order changes and gives place to the new. Horses may replace oxen, shoes may drive out the sabots, store clothes may oust the homespun, but the habitant life of the past will linger in the poetic canvases of Horatio Walker.


As a boy of twelve left these romantic scenes to return to the more prosaic backwoods of Perth County, his decision to make his home in Quebec was completed, but it was years before this hope was realized. Already in Listowel, where his father was a considerable citizen, his native ability in art was evident. A curious incident, a landmark in his career, had occurred a few months before. Observing the lad's facility with pencil and brush as evidenced even in cartoons of his teacher, the local Orange lodge, needing a banner for their coming Twelfth of July procession, had asked the Walker boy to paint one for them. The opportunity was as great as the compliment, and soon there was a dashing silk banner, with "King Billy" on the white horse, crossing the Boyne, on one side, and the open Bible and the immortal names of Ulster towns on the other side. The banner was an instant success, and for his first public commission the boy artist received the tremendous sum of $20. In the Listowel of those days that spelled fortune to a youngster, and soon the swelling artist was treating his chums to such luxuries as the town afforded. A hair cut with a shampoo was about the height of metropolitan imitation to which their tastes led them.


A kind father indulged a yearning boy's love for Quebec with two or three more annual visits, with fresh glimpses of timber rafts, steep-roofed cottages, and dominating church spires, the memory of which remained and beckoned as other tasks came to hand. At fifteen, young Walker went to Toronto and secured employment in the photograph studio of Notman & Fraser. We think of photography nowadays as a recently developed art. We do not realize the artistic product of the Notman studios of that day in Montreal, Toronto, Halifax and Boston, recording the leading men and women of two nations and rendering pictures in natural colour through the skilled brushes of real artists. It was a studio in which a young artist might well seek a place. The "atmosphere" was there, trained men mingled with eager youths, and the celebrities of the day passed steadily through the portals. Among living Canadian artists who worked and learned in this home of the strangely assorted paint brush and wet plate were R. F. Gagen and F. McGillivray Knowles, as well as Horatio Walker. Mr. Gagen, as an older man, then gave Walker most of the practical instruction he ever received, though its volume was naturally slight considering the circumstances.


It is evident that Walker was an apt pupil, for at twenty he had left photographs behind and crossed the border to attain his first success in paint. He lived for a short time in Rochester, wandering afield sketching in the rolling and wooded valleys of northern New York, as well as doing several commissions. His first picture shown in New York, to which height he had now reached, was called A Sty. It depicted with much realism a number of pigs lying down, and was a worthy precursor of many later rural studies. The sketches for it were made in Quebec, where the young artist had strayed from Toronto when chance offered. A larger picture followed, the next year, bringing election to the Society of American Artists, then to the American Watercolour Society, where he won a $300 prize with a picture called Swineherd and Pigs. This fine bit of French Canadian life was bought at once for the Piker Art Gallery at Northampton, Mass., and the young artist had made his first score in the world at large.


Now began the thorough study of Quebec rural life, which is the basis of Walker's individuality and his achievement. He possessed remarkable natural gifts in draftsmanship, for the lack of which no splashing colour can compensate. From a modest studio in Quebec City, he radiated through the riverside parishes, pack on back, sketchbook in hand, and learned his country and his people thoroughly. Only a deep enthusiasm would carry a young man for years through this drilling and grilling. He walked forth and back through the shore settlements from Portneuf to Charlevoix, seventy-five miles, sketching the habitant as he worked, as he played, and as he lived. No peddler or insurance agent. could be more devoted to his "beat" and his calling. He talked with the people in their own patois, he lived in their primitive homes, he attended their festivities and joined in their hours of sorrow. Moreover, he was their link with the outside world. In his pack were the late French-Canadian newspapers, and from these he read the news to the habitants, hungry for variety in their drab life. Murder trials and stories of great crimes and disasters interested them most, and they crowded round the dim light in their cottage as the visitor, joining in the smoking of tabac Canadien, unfolded these thrilling tales of a faraway cruel, but interesting, world. For this suave and talkative stranger the habitants conceived a real liking, and for the courteous and kindly old men who headed the north shore families of that generation the artist had a fondness and respect which has never left him. Close contact for years brought an exhaustive collection of sketches in pencil, watercolour, and oil, recording the whole life of a people with sympathy and exactness. With his power with the pencil, as well as his luminous colour, the artist made spot sketches which have been a solid basis for the more ambitious interpretations of later years. Those early impressions of the habitant have been constantly freshened and reinforced as the artist yearly takes to the field on the Isle of Orleans, and makes new sketches of the quaint life now fast passing away. We still think of rural Quebec as picturesque and backward, but to an artist like Horatio Walker there are many changes in a generation, and he sighs for art's sake as the old implements and the old garments give place to modern and exotic things. He has lived on the Island since the eighties, and has ever made his environment his work and his interest. There have been annual visits to New York , and several sojourns in Europe, but they have been for observation and recreation, rather than study. The artist has made his way in his own method, dowered by nature with a colour sense and supreme ability to draw.


And what kind of man is the habitant as seen by Walker, his artistic interpreter? There is a natural tendency to compare the work of Walker with that of Millet, who has perpetuated on canvas the peasant life of France. The resemblance, however, stops when the type of subject has been mentioned. Millet gives the world a discouraged, downtrodden race, as symbolized in The Man with the Hoe. Walker 's men are hardworking, but they are not gloomy nor despairing. There is ignorance and lack of animation in Millet's figures, but in Walker 's there is sunlight and the glory of accomplishment. Faces in Millet's works tell of the hopeless struggle to raise rent for a non-producing owner; Walker's farmers know that the reward of their industry is their own.


As has been so well said, "Art is life seen through a temperament". Millet, dealing with down-trodden peasant life, carried that side perhaps to an exaggeration. Walker, possessing a sanguine temperament, living in a new country, perhaps idealizes his people. At any rate, no Walker picture fails to cheer and inspire the spectator. The colours alone would do this were one to disregard the epic theme or the superb drawing. There is ever a warmth that carries its seductive tones to the fibre of one's body. Is there a cloud in-the sky? There will be a rosy glow, as in Plowing-The First Gleam, as the sun breaks over the south shore of the St. Lawrence; or in Oxen Drinking, where the day ends with a glorious burst of colour, suffusing the tired figures at the trough. Is there a woodsman in the forest? Against the snow and the dark trees there will be a touch of red, perhaps the axeman's trousers, perhaps his shirt. Always there is luminous colour which reaches the spectator's faculty for appreciation.


Some say Walker's pictures are theatrical, that his figures do unusual things to heighten the effect. It is quite true that this artist is daring, but if his farmers are represented at times in striking attitudes, they are not impossible, though rather, perhaps, uncommon attitudes. The upraised hand with the goad in Plowing-The First Gleam is arrested and demonstrative, but it gives at once a fine feeling of effort and movement, which promises that the day will see something accomplished. In Oxen Drinking there is a spacious sky, full of colour and interest, all giving a Homeric scale and epic grandeur to the scene. Even the woman and turkeys in At Feeding Time and the figures in A Sty-Boy Feeding Pigs uplift and glorify the routine of these commonplace tasks. One cannot study them without a new sense of the dignity of labour and an enhanced respect for such workers. His men in the fields are absorbed in their tasks and almost unconscious of their own personalities. They fall naturally into their environment, and their work and their land seem to form part of the great scheme of a nation's enterprise and development. Arched by a kindly sky, living on a goodly earth, their place in the world is worthy, and men's reward will correspond with their effort.


Absorbed in their daily tasks, they yet do not neglect their religion, and in the hour of trouble or unrest they kneel at the wayside shrine. This symbol for the devout habitant is plentifully distributed along the highways of Quebec, but the more elaborate shrines with a large figure of Christ on the cross are fewer than formerly. In A Rural Shrine Mr. Walker shows a figure bowing in prayer before a figure of the Christ. He is returning from toil, and as he prays his oxen stand, seemingly with understanding. The shrine lifts high on the canvas and is dark against a bright sky beyond. Clouds and a warm glow fill a large space, and one feels, no matter what one's creed, that here is comfort for the weary and hope for the habitant's future life.


Many artists of to-day would say Horatio Walker is conservative and old-fashioned. Compared with the radicals, he is both. He has not experimented in the new methods of the Impressionists and Futurists, and doubtless has little sympathy with them. He is a realist and a careful, honest painter, but withal a colourist. He paints life as he sees it, even though his spectacles may be a trifle rosy. He knows the life he interprets, and he pictures it with sympathy. His home at St. Petronille, Isle of Orleans, faces Quebec six miles up river, and from his garden the Falls of Montmorency, like a bridal veil, and the ever-changing Laurentians, are always in view. The site is eminently historic, for on the point now forming Walker's spacious country house style of home, Jacques Cartier camped when in 1535 he spent the first winter ever endured by a white man in Canada.


The river road winds through the village and far down the Island towards St. Francois . The massive village church almost casts its shadow from the hill to the Walker studio, and down the road the shrines are freely sprinkled. An old-fashioned windmill with sails for farm power is but one remnant of primitive methods. The habitants are laying aside their homespun, and old cottages as they fall are replaced with hard, tinny-looking structures; but while Walker's art remains the world will never forget its happy, simple-living habitant.

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Source : M. O. HAMMOND, "Horatio Walker: Painter of the Habitant", in Canadian Magazine, Vol. LIII, No 1 (May, 1919): 21-29.

© 2005 Claude Bélanger, Marianopolis College