Manitoba History: Laying the Ground: The Establishment of an Artistic Milieu in Winnipeg, 1890-1913
by Angela E. Davis
In the first edition of Manitoba: A History, W. L. Morton comments on the paucity of creativity in the visual arts of Manitoba. Of the years 1908 to 1914 he suggests, “Winnipeg ... produced no artist in those years.”  Of the years 1914 to 1936 he argues that, “Art had not flourished in the province as music had done; it had not found a similar popular basis, nor uncovered the talent that the stage and music had.”  He despairingly concludes that Manitoba from 1945 to 1955 was “incapable of discharging the full obligations of society. It had not produced even a definite art or literature, which are the elementary fruits of a formed community.”  For Morton,
At first glance, it is difficult not to agree with Professor Morton. On the surface it would appear that little art was produced in the early years of the province. But art notoriously takes time to be appreciated, so that while men such as Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald and W. J. Phillips may not have received their due recognition in their lifetime or in their own city, where they suffered “the disadvantages of the lack of an art gallery and of a public of discrimination and taster,”  they nevertheless created works of art which have survived the test of time.
There are, however, certain factors which suggest that Professor Morton’s pessimism concerning cultural development in the early years of the century are unfounded. It was, in fact, during the years 1890 to 1913 that an artistic milieu emerged in Winnipeg which would encourage the development of the visual arts and the creation of artistic taste. It was a situation typical of urban progress in a developing industrial environment:  a stage was reached when, like other new cities of the period, organisations and associations were created by and for those interested in the visual arts. In the words of the Manitoba Free Press of December 1903:
Regular articles on art appeared in the Saturday editions of the Free Press, art teachers advertised in Town Topics,  and an Art Gallery was established by the Industrial Bureau in 1912. Unfortunately, little recognition has been given to the artists and art lovers responsible for this activity. It is a neglect due possibly, on the one hand, to the biases of eastern-based art historians and, on the other, to changing tastes in artistic styles. Because, without doubt, an active artistic community existed in those early years which was far more talented and knowledgeable than has so far been acknowledged.
The history of the development of art in Manitoba, or the prairie region in general, is notable for its lack of documentation.  Prof. T. Regehr’s comment that “historians of the Canadian Plains have generally viewed their history in terms of culture, civilization, and parliamentary government moving to, and not emanating from the frontier,”  is equally applicable to art historians. Most histories of Canadian art treat western art as peripheral to their discussion. In the earliest Canadian art history text, The Fine Arts in Canada, written by Newton MacTavish in 1925, although a few Winnipeg artists are listed in “Biographical Notes” at the end of the book, there is no mention of western art: only a short account of Paul Kane and his “task of painting the Indian in what is now known as Western Canada.”  The general approach to the study of art west of Ontario seems to follow that of William Colgate who, in 1943, said that “the fine arts in the Canadian north-west territories and in British Columbia may be said for the most part to have followed confederation in 1870.” 
In Canadian Art, Colgate discusses the art of the west in terms of record, commenting that “the scenery and life of Western Canada has been interpreted through the eyes of ... Eastern painters ...”  He does, however, note that “Winnipeg, Calgary, Saskatoon, Regina, Vancouver and Victoria all are centres of art activities, all have their art clubs and artists grouped in intimate association.”  And, in spite of this somewhat condescending attitude, he does note that the work of Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald has “attracted considerable attention” and that W. J. Phillips is “a Western artist of conspicuous and diversified talent.”  But his implication that ‘real art progress’ was elsewhere is echoed in the more recent works of Dennis Reid and Barry Lord.  Only Russell Harper, in his Painting in Canada: A History, offers the possibility of an art emanating from the prairies. Of the late nineteenth-century he says,
But the artists he discusses, Lionel Stephenson and Frank Lynn, were recorders in the same sense as Kane.  They did not establish a tradition or begin to create a milieu in which others could work. In his discussion of the twentieth-century, Harper recognizes that because of the influx of immigrants in the first half of the century, “an atmosphere was created which would encourage the creative surge in the years immediately after the Second World War.” But he covers the change which “achieved overnight what had elsewhere taken a century” in two pages,  a discouraging assessment of emerging western art.
It is, in fact, only relatively recently that writers have begun to appreciate the need to study western art within its own context,  and have accepted the possibility that western art has its roots in other than eastern traditions and styles. As Patricia E. Bovey has written, when “the concepts, ideas and controversy of the Group of Seven were sweeping the rest of the country ... Manitoba assumed a fairly passive role.” Although Frank Johnson was principal of the Art School from 1920 to 1924, and although “Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald did exhibit with the group before they dissolved ... Manitoba’s participation was limited to that.” Instead, activity “was concentrated in the germination of the fruit the country was to experience some years later.”  It is interesting to note, however, that the emphasis on light appreciated by contemporary prairie artists  was first recognized by C. W. Jeffreys who, in 1907, produced “the first pictorial statements ... of the prairie landscape which are thought to have inspired the Group of Seven.”  It seems possible, then, that the antecedents of Manitoba’s art are to be found in sources other than eastern Canada: in the traditions of nineteenth-century academic style transplanted into Winnipeg by the art teachers and commercial artists who immigrated from England and Europe and who made up the first artistic community.
Unlike eastern Canada where, during the Napoleonic Wars, artists had been cutoff from European influence and had had time to formulate what Harper calls “a distinct Canadian portrait style,”  artists in Manitoba had never been removed from Victorian academic formulas. The tradition of academic standards, which was followed in Europe as well as England, was grounded in the importance and moral value of certain types of painting. These included historical paintings, “allegorical moral subjects,” genre paintings, and picturesque landscapes.  And in spite of the fact that English critics derided such pictures, they remained popular well into the 1930s.  It was a tradition based on the technical craftsmanship of Lord Frederick Leighton who, as President of the Royal Academy, reached unprecedented heights of position and respect,  and the moral and artistic judgments of John Ruskin.  As a result, the artists and teachers who found themselves residing in Winnipeg at the beginning of the century taught and practised in the traditional manner. They were not concerned with the controversial development of post-impressionism in France or the United States,  or with the arguments over “art for arts sake” which had been so prominent in the last decades of Victorian England. 
This attachment to academic ideas was not confined to the west. In an article “Will the West Develop a Literature and an Art of its own?,” written in 1910, the eastern critic, MacTavish, pointed out that the Canadian West is peculiarly adapted to the modern idea in art imagine, for instance, a settler’s shack, a small rude frame structure
The acceptance of the genre and the picturesque as suitable subjects for painting is obvious and helps to account for the large number of such representations in the early art books and in the Winnipeg art shows. Because, in spite of the statement made in 1913 following the opening of the Art Gallery that “Winnipeg has languished in comparative darkness so far as the brightening influence of art is concerned,”  Winnipeg did have a resident group of artists and art teachers who regularly produced work, albeit in a style which later suffered a decline, and has only recently enjoyed a revival in public response.
It is perhaps, therefore, because of changes in taste that the early development has been ignored by Canadian art historians. Although how the magnificent Paul Beygrau has remained lost in the oral history of Pembina-Manitou seems inexplicable. In 1901, Paul Beygrau, “a student of art academies of both Karlsruhe and Baden-on-Rhine,” painted murals on the walls and ceilings of a wealthy southern Manitoba farmer’s home. Lying on his back, “as Michelangelo had worked centuries ago in the Sistine Chapel,” he painted, on the parlour ceiling a vision of Edward VII:
In 1894 he had won “First Prize in the Winnipeg Exhibition for his pen and ink drawings,” and was, according to his biographer, by 1929 a “landscape painter of repute in Vancouver.”  Hardly a representative of a region languishing “in comparative darkness.”
The turn of the century in Winnipeg reflected, in fact, the same spirit John Higham noted in his essay “The Reorientation of American Culture in the 1890s”: a desire for change and development in fields other than that of material progress.  In 1892 the Women’s Art Association was incorporated; in 1894 Premier Greenway was discussing a forthcoming exhibition and lottery of French paintings and in 1896 was corresponding with the secretary of the Society of Arts in London;  by 1903 a Manitoba Society of Artists had been formed;  and by 1910 two more organisations, the Western Art Association and the Searchlight Art Club, were functioning.  In all these activities the emphasis was on creating a public awareness for the value of art in a settled and prosperous community. In the information sent to Premier Greenway from the Royal Society of Arts of Canada, for example, the reason given for the lottery of French paintings is “to disseminate the taste for arts in Canada;”  the first publication of the Manitoba Society of Artists pointed out that:
and the Report of the Art Association delegates to the 1895 meeting of the National Council of Women in Toronto emphasised that one of the aims of the Council is the “encouragement and promotion of more general interest in original art in this country.” 
Perhaps it is because so many of the early artists and art promoters were women that their activities have been ignored by art critics and art historians. MacTavish, it is true. did devote a whole chapter of his 1925 book to “Canadian Women Painters,” but Mary Riter Hamilton, an internationally known artist working in Winnipeg,  is only mentioned in a list of painters, and Marion Nelson Hooker is not mentioned at all, although her portraits would seem to be as professionally executed as those represented in MacTavish’s study.  Similarly, the impression is given that the women’s art associations were dilettante activities.  But a brief survey of the interests of the Women’s Art Association and the Searchlight Art Club refutes this conclusion. The Women’s Art Association, founded in 1890 and incorporated in 1892, was the Winnipeg branch of the Women’s Art Association of Canada. This group, in turn, was closely associated with the National Council of Women of Canada, an organisation concerned with education, public health and working conditions of women and children, as well as the encouragement of interest in “Applied design, National Art, Music and Literature.”  In 1895, Mary Ella Dignam, the national President of the Council, read a paper on “The Development of National Art in Canada” as her opening address to the sixth annual meeting. Mary Dignam was a professional painter of repute who had studied in Europe and had exhibited in England and New York. She was well known as a writer on art subjects and was a member of the New York Art Club and the International Art Club of London.  She was not, therefore, speaking as an amateur when, in her address, she stressed the need for
It is true that her evaluation of the function of art was Victorian, but this does not make it an uneducated view when considered in its historical context.
The Winnipeg branch had two types of membership, professional and honorary, of whom only the professional could be branch officers. The professionals were artists and “serious students,” while the others were “ladies who are interested in the promotion of art matters.”  Among the latter, however, were women such as Isabel Macarthur who numbered among her activities editing the Winnipeg Telegram’s “Women’s May Day Supplement,” organising the Free Kindergarten movement, being an active member of the Women’s Christian Temperance Union, the Young Women’s Christian Association and the Historical Society, as well as serving as treasurer for the Winnipeg branch of the National Council of Women. In 1907 she read a paper to the Art Association on “Earlier Dutch Art.” It was a short essay on Vermeer, well written and recognising the importance of Dutch genre painting in the history of art. She noted the social environment within which Vermeer worked and was aware of his new approach to the use of light.  It was a competent, professional account which, like the address of Mary Dignam, in no way gave the impression of an uneducated dilettante.
The Women’s Art Association had monthly meetings, frequently with speakers, and organised exhibitions in the spring and autumn of each year.  Although there is little information on the Association after 1896, it was still active in 1910 when Isabel Macarthur was President. In 1909, a group broke away to become the Western Art Association, but whether this was to be free of the National Association is not recorded.  It was, however, a group closely associated with the Manitoba Society of Artists when, in 1912, their joint promotion of an Art Gallery was successful. 
The Manitoba Society of Artists, from its inception in 1903, had held “the encouragement and fostering of original and native art in the Province of Manitoba” as its primary objective. Its membership was comprised of “painters, sculptors, architects, artistic engravers, draughtsmen and designers, residing in Manitoba or temporarily residing elsewhere, and membership was determined by a selection committee which judged submitted work of prospective members.  The first executive officers of the Society, H. S. Stead, Frank Armington and E. J. Ransom, were all working artists. Hay Stead was, at the time of the founding of the Society, a cartoonist and writer on the staff of the Manitoba Free Press,  while Frank Armington was a highly trained Ontario-born painter who came from Paris to Winnipeg in 1900 to start his own teaching studio.  He lived in Winnipeg for only five years, but his interest in western Canadian art was obviously sufficient for him to support such a venture as the Society of Artists. The third member of the founding executive of the Society, E. J. Ransom, was an artist-engraver and a businessman. He was “internationally known as engraver, art critic, bookman, lecturer and craftsman” and in the early years of the century had founded his own engraving company.  Until 1913, when the Ontario firm of Brigden’s opened its first western branch, the Ransom Engraving Company produced much of the promotional material for the city of Winnipeg.  However, Stead and Ransom were commercial artists and possibly reflect, along with the women, a further bias of the early writers on Canadian art. As J. E. Middleton said in his biography of the artist F. H. Brigden, Victorian values existed well into the 1930s: artists were not admitted to the Royal Canadian Academy, for example, if they were practising commercial artists. 
It can be seen, therefore, that there was considerable educated and professional activity in Winnipeg during the first decade of the century. But the amateurs also contributed to the growth of an artistic milieu. Unlike the Women’s Art Association, the Searchlight Art Club was formed in 1911 with the sole intention of studying art and artists.  The members wrote and read papers on individual artists and problems of artistic style. They kept their papers in books and filed an index of all they had read and studied. Their papers included pictures, criticisms and objective analyses. They sent for reproductions from Perry Pictures of Boston and collected copies of the “Great Masters” from the Ladies Home Journal. They were hard-working and serious, and again there is no sign of frivolous dilettantism. What is noticeable, however, is that their research was limited to the “Great Masters” and to the “Modern English Painters” The latter go no further than the Pre-Raphaelites, and the Impressionists are not even mentioned. Their attachment to traditional academic values was obviously part of the artistic atmosphere in which their taste was being formed. It was, in fact, the atmosphere in which FitzGerald grew up and into which Bertram Brooker arrived in 1905.
When the Manitoba Society of Artists held its inaugural exhibition in 1903, it was greeted with great enthusiasm by the public and the press. The works of Hay Stead and Frank Armington were particularly admired, the description of the latter’s paintings pre-dating MacTavish’s recommendations for picturesque representations of the Canadian west:
Of more importance to this study, however, are certain comments made in the press concerning the desire for westerners to develop their own artistic traditions. “For years,” said the Manitoba Free Press in December, 1903,
Two years later the Manitoba Society of Artists sponsored another exhibition, this time a combined show of local artists and artists from the American Art Students League and the Chicago Art Institute. Frank Armington was again singled out for praise, in spite of the fact that there were “over one hundred drawings and paintings ... of many of America’s rising painters and illustrators.  And there was no decline in public interest, only, as the newspaper pointed out, a lack of support at municipal or provincial level. As a result of the show, E. J. Ransom wrote to the editor of the Free Press on the subject of such support:
Not until 1912, however, after an exhibition mounted by the combined efforts of the Western Art Association and the Society of Artists,  did a gallery finally come into being, and then only through the instigation of the Industrial Bureau. The Art Gallery, in fact, did not become a municipal institution until 1923.  But whether the existence of a gallery was a motivating force in the development of prairie art and artists in difficult to prove. It would seem far more likely that the activity and interest which promoted its creation had a greater impact. Whatever the reason, an artistic milieu was definitely emerging in the prairie metropolis. In 1909, a Winnipeg art teacher, A. S. Keszthelyi, wrote in Town Topics on the “Value of Art to the Community.” He said,
It was a prophetic statement. His own pupil, FitzGerald, started exhibiting in Winnipeg in 1911, and in 1913 had a painting accepted by the Royal Canadian Academy.  In 1905 Bertram Brooker had arrived in Winnipeg as a young man of 17,  and in 1912 Charles Comfort immigrated from Scotland.  Although not well-known for some considerable time, they were eventually to become three of Canada’s most esteemed artists. A little later, in 1913, F. H. Brigden opened his engraving firm which fulfilled a role for Winnipeg artists similar to that of Grip for the Group of Seven,  and to complete the fulfillment of Keszthelyi’s prophecy, W. J. Phillips came to Winnipeg in 1913.  In just over a decade a milieu had been established within which artists of great future importance in Canadian art history could live and work.
It seems, therefore, that the pessimistic view of the state of art in Manitoba in the early years of the century has to be revised. The lack of interest on the part of writers such as MacTavish and Colgate has given the impression that the artistic community of the west was not worth investigation. On the contrary, it would appear that Winnipeg paralleled other growing cities of the new world in its stage of development, that the style of art produced was typical of its period, and that the Winnipeg artistic community was itself aware of being generally overlooked by eastern critics. In the years from 1890 to 1913 there were professional artists working in Winnipeg in a style which was to suffer a decline in popularity; there were commercial artists working for engraving companies, or as cartoonists for the newspapers; and there was a sufficient body of interested people to promote an atmosphere in which art can be, and has continued to be, created.
1. W. L. Morton, Manitoba: A History. 2nd ed. (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 1979). p. 322.
6. See Robert S. Lynd and Helen Merrell Lynd, Middletown: A Study in American Culture. (New York: Harcourt, Brace and World, Inc. 1956); Asa Briggs, Victorian Cities. (London: Odhams Books Ltd., 1965); Leon S. Marshall, “The Emergence of the First Industrial City: Manchester. 1780-1850; The Cultural Approach to History. ed. Caroline F. Ware. (Port Washington. New York: Kennikat Press Inc., 1940). pp. 140-161.
9. See, for example, Manitoba Free Press. January 6, 1906. p. 20 for a review article “Three Popular Books on Art” and January 13, p. 27 for “Incongrious Gossip about the National Gallery.” For art teachers, see Town Topics, December 26, 1903, pp. 4, 6, 7.
10. It is hoped that this situation will be rectified in the near future when Dr. Virginia Berry publishes her study of the visual arts in Manitoba.
12. Newton MacTavish. The Fine Arts in Canada. Coles facsimile edition. (Toronto: Coles Publishing Co., 1973). p. 3. It should be noted that MacTavish dismisses any idea of an “aboriginal” or Indian art.
13. William Colgate, Canadian Art: Its Chains and Development. (Toronto: McGraw-Hill Ryerson Ltd., 1967). p. 175. See also Alan Gowans. “The Canadian National Style: in The Shield of Achilles. ed. W. L. Morton. (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1968). p. 208 for observations on Colgate’s equivalent influence on attitudes towards Canadian architecture.
17. See Barry Lord, The History of Painting in Canada: Towards a People’s Art. (Toronto NC Press, 19741 and Dennis Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting. (Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1973).
19. Ibid., p. 199. See also Michael Bell, Painters in a New Land, (Toronto: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1973). pp. 9-16; Virginia Berry, “Washington Frank Lynn: Artist and Journalist,” The Beaver: (Spring, 1978) 24-31; J. Russell Harper, Paul Kane’s Frontier (Toronto. University of Toronto Press, 1971).
21. See, for example, Ted Ferguson, “Painting in the West. Where earth and art are one,” The Review. 6 (1979), 1-7 and Ronald Rees, “Image of the Prairie: Landscape Painting and Perception in the Western Interior of Canada The Canadian Geographer. XX. 3(1976), 259-278.
26. See John Canaday, Mainstreams of Modern Art, (New York: Holt Rinehart and Winston Inc., 1959), pp. 136-155; Roy Strong, And When Did You Last See Your Father? The Victorian Painter and British History, (London: Thames and Hudson, 1978); Rosemary Treble ‘Introduction ‘Great Victorian Pictures’ their paths to fame. Exhibition catalogue, (London: The Arts Council of Great Britain, 1978). Also David G. Carter, ‘Introduction, The Painter and the New World: A Survey of Painting from 1564 to 1867 Marking the Founding of Canadian Confederation. Catalogue. (Montreal: The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. 1967)
34. See Pembina-Manitou: 100th Anniversary and Reunion, 2-8 July 1979. (Pembina-Manitou Centennial Committee 1979). I am indebted to Vera J. Pybus for this reference.
38. Western Art Association. Programme and Catalogue 1910, 1912, PAM. MG 10 C5-l: Searchlight Art Club. Records 1910-1914, PAM. MG 10G51. (This organisation was called the Searchlight Book Club for a short period of time.)
42. Florence E. Deacon. “The Art of Mary Riter Hamilton;” The Canadian Magazine. XXXIX. 6 (October, 1912) 557-564; W. Garland Foster, “Coals to Newcastle.” Western Home Monthly. May 1930), pp 33-34 (From the Biographical files, Winnipeg Art Gallery Library).
43. Ferdinand Eckhardt, 150 Year of Art in Manitoba: Struggle for a Visual Civilization. Centennial Exhibition Catalogue (Winnipeg: The Winnipeg Art Gallery 1970). For Mary Nelson Hooker see pp. 63-84 for Mary Riter Hamilton, see p. 82.
49. In Memoriam: a pamphlet in the memory of the late Miss Isabel Macarthur” Women’s Art Association of Winnipeg, in MLL. CT-I MI1 RBC (The pamphlet includes obituaries from the Manitoba Free Press, the Winnipeg Telegram and Town Topics, also a copy of Isabel Macarthur’s paper on Vermeer.)
54. Winnipeg Tribune, February, 1924 in Manitoba History Scrapbook, MLL, B7. p. 239. For examples of Stead’s work see Manitobans As We See ‘Em 1908-1909, (Winnipeg: Newspaper Cartoonists Association of Manitoba, 1909).
60. Manitoba Free Press December 17, 1903, p. 30. (See footnote 32 re MacTavish.)
71. Carlyle Allison. “W. J. Phillips: Artist and Teacher,” The Beaver (Winter 1969), p. 6.
Page revised: 14 June 2014