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Sir William Cornelius Van Horne

FOR THE PURPOSES OF watercolour landscape painting in prairie Canada (with the exception of Paul Kane and Lewis Hine who traveled overland earlier in the century and were concerned primarily with documentation) our history begins in 1887 when William Van Horne, then general manager and subsequently president of the Canadian Pacific Railway. Van Horne issued railroad passes to artists, encouraging them to paint scenery from the interior of the new country -- especially what were to become the mountain parks. He shrewdly judged that the images would attract both tourists and settlers both of whom would be obliged to use the railway. In a sense, this use repeated the conditions of the Grand Tour as well as Turner's visits to the Alps and Italy in search of the picturesque and the sublime: both the purpose and character of the trip and the scenery pursued were English in spirit -- one can imagine the artists perusing and applying the principles of Ruskin's Modern Painters throughout the journey. Equally English were the means chosen -- the artists worked from nature in watercolour as often as not, and produced large "exhibition watercolours" based upon them. They also painted oils, but like so many of their British counterparts of the day, their oils tended to be still and pedestrian.

ALFRED SISLEY, The Flood at Marly, 1872. National Gallery, Washington

By way of contrast, consider the contemporary practice of the French Impressionists. They, too, were essentially landscape painters, but they tended to paint domestic scenery in oils, all but ignoring the sublime and the conventionally picturesque. Despite their interest in light and atmosphere, they seldom painted with watercolour, perhaps because they resisted its lack of substance, preferring the more substantial and "resistant" medium of oil paint.

The water-based medium seems to have suited the English, as did sublime subjects. Of the artists represented here, O'Brien, Matthews, and Bell-Smith gravitated to the mountains, ignoring the prairies (as did Jackson, Macdonald, Varley, Lismer, and Harris of the Group of Seven in the next century.) Of the 19th century artists, only F. H. Verner painted the prairies, albeit somewhat in the tradition of Paul Kane and Lewis Hine before him. Early in the 20th century, C. W. Jefferys visited the prairies on several occasions and was probably the first artist of note to intuit its unique character as a subject for painting.