If you have ever been to any major art gallery in Canada, you have probably seen at least one of Cornelius Krieghoff’s paintings. A Dutch-Canadian painter, he captured mid-19th century life and the rural Canadian landscape in a way that still resonates today. His work was heavily inspired by habitants (French-Canadian peasants/farmers), the great outdoors, as well as Indigenous communities and their way of life. Krieghoff’s work went on to influence future artists and yet some critics question whether he can be considered a real Canadian painter. Before we get to that though, let’s take a look at his life and Lower Canada/Quebec in the mid-1800s.
Born in Amsterdam, Netherlands on June 19, 1815, Krieghoff grew up in Bavaria, Germany where he studied art before immigrating to America in 1837. When he arrived in New York, he enlisted as a volunteer in the US Army for three years. Not much is known about Krieghoff’s time in the army other than he was sent down to Florida and was involved to some degree in the Second Seminole War. Krieghoff is believed to have drawn hundreds of sketches of his time in the army. If this is true, sadly none have survived to this day.
Krieghoff was supposed to re-enlist in 1840, but the story goes that once he got some advance money from the army he high-tailed it up north with his new French-Canadian wife Louise* Gauthier. Given that living off of a struggling artist’s income was difficult, the two of them and their children moved around a bit during the first five years of their marriage. They lived in Boucherville, Toronto, Longueuil, Montreal, and Quebec City. Whereas the businessmen of Toronto and Montreal were less than interested in artwork that depicted habitant life, Quebec City (and particularly British officers there) appreciated Krieghoff’s European-based style and his representation of the Canadian countryside.
* According to biographers, her name was either Louise or Emilie. Not much is known about her. Apparently she disappeared during their marriage. Some say she left him for another man, others say she died in Longueuil in 1858, but there is no death certificate.
From then demand for his art allowed Krieghoff to earn a living as a full-time artist. Krieghoff was popular with both English and French art collectors as well as ordinary citizens. Customers especially liked to to send one of his paintings to relatives outside of the country to show them what life looked like in Lower Canada. He was commissioned for portraits by the wealthy, but landscapes and daily lives were more fascinating to him and what he focused on. By the end of his life, it is estimated Krieghoff created between 1500-1800 paintings and prints.
Like most early Canadian artists, Krieghoff’s style was heavily influenced by European painters. He loved to use a bright palette and paint expressive faces. The upbeat temperament and interpretative nature of his paintings, in addition to his focus on rural landscapes are reminiscent of the 17th century Dutch art, particularly genre paintings. Critics of his work use this to discredit him, claiming that because his European influence Krieghoff is not really a “Canadian painter.” Others think that’s total nonsense. For them, it’s all about the content. The strong regionalism in his art shows audiences what life was like for the majority of the population. He shows us the traditions, customs, work, clothes, homes, and what the world looked like to habitants and local Indigenous people. Essentially, Krieghoff captured early Quebec. The only major thing missing is religion, which was a huge part of habitants’ lives but Krieghoff preferred to stay away from that theme in his work. On a final note, his use of vivid colours when paintings forests in autumn and snow-covered hillsides inspired future artists like Tom Thomson and Suzor-Coté.
What do you think of Krieghoff’s artwork? Do you consider him a “Canadian painter?”
Gehmacher, Arlene, “Cornelius David Krieghoff,” The Canadian Encyclopedia. March 2015. Accessed from: http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/cornelius-david-krieghoff/
Loch, Alan R., “Krieghoff, Cornelius,” Loch Gallery. Accessed from: http://www.lochgallery.com/artist/krieghoff-cornelius
Vézina, Raymond, “KRIEGHOFF, CORNELIUS,” Dictionary of Canadian Biography, University of Toronto/Université Laval, Accessed from: http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/krieghoff_cornelius_10E.html.