Artistic representations of the vast Canadian landscape have held a special fondness in the hearts of Canadians since early European contact. The tradition has been so enduring that even after several hundred years, landscape painting is still as intrinsic to the identify of Canada as it has ever been. While modes of representation have changed drastically, the landscape genre has continued to hold a dominant place in the Canadian art market coast to coast. So what are the roots of this tradition and why has it been so pervasive throughout Canada’s past?
The first European representations of the land in Canada were completed by topographers of the British army. Under an imperial Britain with ambitions of territorial conquest, artists produced glorified images of explorations and the process of settlement against the background of an ever-present wilderness. Through the documentation and presentation of the Canadian landscape, Europeans were laying claim to the land and legitimizing their exploration and possession of North American territories. In the eyes of an imperial audience back home, the land was an unexploited resource, ripe for conquest and colonization.
As Canada moved towards Confederation, landscape painting as a popular genre was increasingly taking hold. By end of the 19th century, it had become an important aesthetic movement, closely following conventional, academic European tastes and models. Artists worked within traditional formulaic composition and the Canadian landscape was modelled within one of three aesthetic modes popular in Europe – the beautiful, the sublime, or the picturesque. Paintings expressed, not only the aesthetic beauty of the land, but also a sense of wonder and amazement. Work became propaganda to encourage settlement, but also to make colonists feel more comfortable in a land largely unfamiliar to them.
At the beginning of the 20th century, Canadian art began to increasingly break away from European models. As part of a growing sense of Canadian nationalism, artist sought to define a uniquely Canadian sensibility that addressed specifically Canadian themes. The artwork of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven presented a successful attempt to respond to this dilemma. Through the depiction of a new type of wilderness landscape – one that was rugged and expressive, imposing and inhospitable, and void of human activity – the group ushered in a new modernity in Canadian art. Though not completely free of European influence, the style propagated a particular kind of Canadian national identity, one that infused euro-Canadians with a sense of patriotism for the rough land they had conquered and made their home.
Contemporary artists continue to paint in the “Group-style”, which has achieved cult-level status in today’s markets. Although the style has been commodified, its popularity persists in part due to a nostalgic longing for a world free from the negative features of urbanization and industrialization. Imagery of the uninhabited Canadian wilderness offers us a retreat from the anxieties of urban life and the troubling environmental realities we are presently confronted with.