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19th Century Canadian Art Exhibition and Auction Catalogues

Paper Presented to the History of the Book in Canada’s
Open Conference for Volume II (1840-1918)
by Jonathan Franklin
National Gallery of Canada/Musée des beaux arts du Canada


Shaw's Auction HouseExhibition catalogues as a class of publication have gone through many changes. A good example of the late 20th century trend towards door-stopper-sized volumes was the Watteau exhibition in Paris in 1984, where visitors were actually banned from taking the catalogue into the exhibition space on the grounds that it might injure other members of the crowd. No such problems arose with the modest exhibition catalogues published in Canada during the 19th century. In fact, art exhibitions as we think of them today did not really exist. Works of art were exhibited for sale with increasing frequency, but they did not generally travel for the purposes of pure exhibition, with the exception of a very few ‘star’ works. One such was the Angelus by Jean-François Millet, which was exhibited under the auspices of the Art Association of Montreal from 17th to 31st May 1890. The painting was accompanied by 14 other items, mostly Barbizon paintings, all being lent for the occasion by Montreal collectors such as Sir Donald Smith and William Van Horne. An 8-page small-format catalogue was published, entitled ‘Exhibition of the Angelus’, the painting being so famous that the artist’s name did not even need to be printed. Almost all the exhibits are illustrated, but the text entries are limited to the title of the painting and the artist’s name and dates; only a pair of Gobelin tapestries are allotted some explanatory text, mostly concerning their Canadian provenance. Of all 19th century Canadian art catalogues, this is perhaps the closest in intent to the exhibition catalogues of today.

The history of the publication of art catalogues in Canada begins somewhat earlier, however, in 1823. 19th-century Canadian art catalogues can be broadly divided into three categories, collection catalogues, exhibition catalogues and auction catalogues. Outside these three categories appeared a variety of other art and art-related publications, topographical, educational, periodicals, monographs, gift-books, and so forth; all of them outside the scope of this paper. Perhaps the inclusion of auction catalogues under the heading of art catalogues needs a moment’s explanation. 19th century Canada was no different from other parts of the world where art publishing of any kind was a strictly limited activity; as a result the steady flow of catalogues of works of art which emanated from auction houses, however distorted in content by the requirements of the art trade, nevertheless constitutes an important sector of art publishing. And it is in fact an auction catalogue, published in 1823, that represents, at least to my knowledge, the first art catalogue published in Canada. Even then it was not quite an independent publication, since it was published as an insert in the Quebec Mercury for 26 August of that year, listing works of art to be sold by the dealer J.C. Reiffenstein on 1st September. Reiffenstein Catalogue Nevertheless, it is clearly a step up from the brief lists of paintings offered for sale which occur as simple advertisements in the auction pages of early 19th century Canadian newspapers, both French-speaking (Le Canadien) and English-speaking (The Mercury) in the case of Quebec City.

The catalogue itself is a simple folded sheet, and is distinctly old-fashioned in that the entries list the subject before the artist, where an artist is given at all. Art historical research in the French Enlightenment had tended to promote the artist over the subject, a significant shift in our attitude to paintings which is reflected in 18th-century Paris catalogues but had yet to be felt in Canada.

This point is well illustrated by a catalogue from 3 decades later, in which the Quebec dealer J.C. Reiffenstein is also mentioned. “Mr Reiffenstein ... was often travelling to Europe on business and Mr Légaré had advised [him] to buy good paintings even if he had to purchase a whole collection of value”. “Mr Légaré’ is the painter Joseph Légaré (1795-1855), and the quotation comes from an entry in his ‘Catalogue of the Quebec Gallery of paintings, engravings, etc’, published at Quebec in 1852. Building on the Desjardins Collection, which had been imported from Paris, and with the aid of Reiffenstein and others, Joseph Légaré had assembled the most noteworthy art collection in Canada during the first half of the 19th century. Since it was open to the paying public, the catalogue was designed as an aid to viewing the pictures. In contrast to the entries in Reiffenstein’s 1823 catalogue, the artist’s name is printed before the subject or title of the painting. Moreover in the accompanying text, quite voluminous in some cases, the actual subjects of the paintings are never even mentioned, let alone discussed. This may strike us as odd today, but is perfectly in line with the late 18th- and early 19th-century models, by the great Parisian connoisseurs and cataloguers, which Légaré was following. Instead, the biography of the artist, with dates and places of birth where known, forms the basis for a general discussion of his or her style and technique. Légaré’s entries were doubtless derived from standard reference works of the time or from French collection and auction catalogues; more research would be needed to ascertain which ones. Some entries do discuss the particular work in question, as opposed to the general facts of the artist’s life and output, but almost always exclusively in terms of provenance. Entry number 1, for example, includes a full paragraph on the history of the Desjardins Collection from which 33 of the 162 paintings originated. Here also, the rather quaint use of the third person ("Mr Légaré") throughout emulates French catalogues where the cataloguer (a scholar-connoisseur) and the collector (typically an aristocrat or rich financier) were different people.

In 1874 the collection was due to be auctioned by Légaré’s heirs, and a manuscript draft of the auction catalogue is in the Archives of the Séminaire du Québec. Auctioneers being less familiar with the practices of the Enlightenment, this catalogue is just a straightforward list, but in any case it was never published, as the sale was cancelled when the Séminaire du Québec stepped in to buy the collection en bloc. What is interesting, however, is that several decades later, in 1893, when the Université Laval, offspring of the Séminaire du Québec, published a catalogue of its ‘Musée de peinture’, Légaré’s texts were recycled verbatim in the entries for this publication, echoing the approach to paintings of an earlier age.

Joseph Légaré’s catalogue may be treated as a collection catalogue, since the collection aspired to and did in fact attain permanent status. Permanent collection catalogues were rarely published in Canada during the 19th century for obvious reasons: collections were few, and, of those few, fewer still were permanent. The second half of the century saw a movement towards the establishment of permanent public art collections. The Montreal Museum of Fine Arts’ collection was based on the bequest of a wealthy private citizen, Benaiah Gibb, in 1877 to the Art Association of Montreal, which 3 years later published the ‘Catalogue of the Gibb bequest and special loan collection of pictures’, thus combining the permanent semi-public collection with temporary private loans. The National Gallery of Canada began life in 1880, largely as a vehicle of the Royal Canadian Academy, whose Diploma works constituted its first accessions. Its first catalogue was published in 1882. National Gallery Catalogue Catalogues and cataloguers were often on the cusp of the transition from temporary private collection to permanent public collection. For example, from the catalogue of an 1887 Loan Exhibition of Canadian Historical Portraits in Montreal: “This Catalogue has been compiled, not alone as a guide to the Exhibition per se, but also in the hope that it may be regarded as a useful vade-mecum for all time, as a faithful record of matters relating to Canadian history, not previously brought together”. And from the catalogue of the 1899 Canadian History Exhibition at Toronto University: “Owing to the necessity of compiling the catalogue largely from the entry forms, many of which were very incomplete, ... the intention of giving short paragraphs of history in connection with each exhibit has been found an impossible task. It will therefore be reserved for the catalogue of a permanent museum”.

The ‘official’ collection catalogues tend to be economical in terms of both content and presentation. Yet, in other circumstances, a strikingly different publication could arise. The ‘Catalogue of the paintings in the gallery at High Park, a donation from John G. Howard to the City of Toronto’, published in 1884, is an instance of this. Howard Catalogue This catalogue functions as a guide for visitors, since the paintings are listed room by room, but at the same time it has the characteristics of a commemorative or souvenir publication. The higher production values, exemplified by the gold-stamped blue cloth covers, and specific elements such as the engraved portrait frontispiece of the collector, reverently protected by a tissue-paper guard, are evidence of this affinity. The impression is reinforced by the fact that it was published in conjunction with a mini-biography of the donor, ‘Incidents in the life of John G. Howard Esq. of Colborne Lodge, High Park’, and it seems certain that the costs of this relatively elaborate publication must have been borne partly or perhaps wholly by Mr Howard himself. It appears to be a unique Canadian example of a genre with a long history, beginning in Italy in the 17th century, where rich collectors published sumptuous catalogues of their collections, not for public sale, but as gifts for their friends. This model, with its undeniable element of vanity publishing, was adopted in the late 19th century not only for private collection catalogues but also for upmarket auction catalogues of private collections about to be sold. Another interesting feature of this catalogue is the use of illustration, which was the exception rather than the rule in 19th century Canadian art catalogues and will be discussed later. A plate showing the tomb designed by John Howard for his wife and himself in High Park was recycled from the Builder Magazine, published in London, England; a good example of the magpie tendency in19th-century illustration.

It was noted earlier that the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts arose from the Art Association of Montreal and the National Gallery of Canada from the Royal Canadian Academy, in other words from institutions which had been exhibiting art since the 1860s. RCA Catalogues The catalogues of these exhibiting societies were more typical than the Angelus catalogue discussed earlier. In Toronto, the Ontario Society of Artists held annual exhibitions from 1873, and even from before these dates, sporadic catalogues have survived, such as the ‘First exhibition of the Society of Artists and Amateurs of Toronto’, dated 1834, which sold for 71/2 pence on top of the admission price of 1 shilling and 3 pence, or the ‘Catalogue for the Montreal Gallery of Pictures, exhibition the first’, 1847, a catalogue with literary leanings: whole chunks of Sir Walter Scott are printed to embellish the entries for 2 paintings by Cornelius Krieghoff. A separate paper could be written on the relationship between art and literature as reflected in 19th century catalogues: a half-century later, this debate was reflected in an 1896 Toronto catalogue, in notes on a couple of long-forgotten painters: “Neuhuys is condemned by the anti-literary critic on the ground of his subservience to sentiment and his persistent presentation of the Dutch baby and the Dutch vrow”. “The anti-literary critic who is sometimes apt to make himself a nuisance scoffs at all of Orchardson save his paint, and his lines, and his masterly spaces; but even he would admit that literary painter as he is, Orchardson is before all things a painter”.

On the whole, however, these catalogues are in a distinctly basic format, consisting of numbered lists of titles and artists’ names. And the same could also be said of most of the catalogues which were generated later in the century by various artistic societies, such as the Women’s Art Association of Canada, and the Toronto Camera Club. Catalogues were also issued for loan exhibitions mounted on behalf of charitable projects and for educational purposes. For example, the catalogue of the Toronto Club Loan exhibition in 1896, which was open in the late afternoons and evenings for the benefit of working people, presented biographical notes on the artists in the manner of Joseph Légaré’s catalogue 40 years earlier: “In preparing the notes on painters, free use has been made of the various dictionaries and handbooks of art without any attempt to indicate the precise source of information. Many of the notices are copied directly from the Montreal Catalogue of 1893, and from other catalogues”. In fact most of the works in the exhibition had been loaned by Montrealers. A newspaper reviewer of the Montreal exhibition had praised the catalogue as “well-made, its only deficiency being that it did not name the owners of the pictures specifically”. This omission was rectifed in in the Toronto Club catalogue. The recycling of text, as well as of illustrations, was a frequent phenomenon: for its 1865 exhibition catalogue, the the Art Association of Montreal borrowed a complete essay by F.T. Palgrave, on the history of oil painting, from the London (England) 1862 international exhibition catalogue.

The exhibiting societies were generally run by artists, and arose at least partly in response to frustration with the exhibiting opportunities offered by local and regional trade fairs and exhibitions, where artworks were in danger of being classified and displayed with minerals or worse. Nevertheless, the catalogues for these exhibitions show that art continued to be included. The annual Toronto Industrial Exhibitions provided a showcase for art, overseen by the Ontario Society of Artists, from 1879 onwards. These fairs and exhibitions generated a whole slew of publications such as prize lists, prospectuses, catalogues, official reports, and daily programmes.International Fair The volume of publication required to coordinate a provincial or regional exhibition was naturally magnified several-fold in the case of international exhibitions. For the Canadian contribution to the Colonial and Indian Exhibition of 1886, a monthly paper was even produced entitled the ‘Canadian Exhibitor: A journal of the Canadian Department of the Colonial and Indian Exhibition’, singing the praises of the Canadian exhibits and Canada in general. By contrast the official publication, by Sir Charles Tupper, is a model of austerity and restraint.

For the same exhibition, an official letter casts light on the process of compiling a catalogue. “In furtherance of this idea, I trust that each Government will take an early opportunity of preparing a catalogue of the objects intended for exhibition, which, for the sake of uniformity, I would request should be modelled somewhat on the principle of the enclosed specimen, more especially as regards size of page and style of type. Each Government will be at liberty to sell its own catalogue, but the Royal Commission will be glad to receive, as soon as practicable, a digest of it, in order that it may be embodied in a general catalogue of the exhibition, which will be published by the Commission”. From this it appears that the general catalogue was usually published in the country where the exhibition took place, but was nevertheless heavily dependent upon local copy submitted in advance of the exhibition. An instance of an individual catalogue, published in the host city (again, in this case, London) but probably on behalf of the exhibiting government, in this case Vancouver Island, comes from the 1862 International Exhibition: entitled ‘Catalogue of the Vancouver contribution : with a short account of Vancouver Island and British Columbia’, it contains an art section, consisting chiefly of photographs and watercolour views of Victoria and vicinity by an amateur. This reflects the role of international exhibitions in providing a showcase for colonial governments to display the measures of their progress and, particularly in the case of Canada, to entice immigrants. Accordingly, although the cataloguing of paintings at exhibitions might seem to be a relatively innocuous activity, upon occasion it could assume dimensions of national importance. For the Chicago World’s Fair in 1893, the artist Ernest Thompson Seton submitted a rather gruesome picture entitled ‘Awaited in vain’, showing wolves devouring the remains of a woodsman. The relevant Canadian Committee was so worried that the public would take this to be a representative image of rural life in Canada that he was obliged to retouch it and the catalogue entry is explicitly subtitled ‘a scene in the Pyrenees’.

As noted earlier, the official publications generated by an exhibition were usually less adventurous than those published by private enterprise. The London (England)-based Art Journal published elaborate souvenir volumes of, for example, the 1867 Paris exhibition, which openly touted their superiority to the official publication. Within Canada the market was too small to support much competition of this nature, but even so alternative publications did appear. The Ontario Society of Artists 1887 exhibition gave rise to a small booklet entitled ‘More modern painters, or notes on the art exhibition at Toronto’, under the pseudonym John Ruskin Junior. The publisher was Grip Magazine, and the text amounts to a review of the pictures rather than a catalogue. Ironically the publication carries advertising for a cheap edition of ‘Modern painters’ by the real John Ruskin.

Having looked at collection catalogues and exhibition catalogues in 19th century Canada, we may now turn to the 3rd category, auction catalogues. About 63 examples of art auction catalogues appear to have survived from the 19th century, but we know that many more were published from the frequent newspaper advertisements for art auctions appearing in newspapers of the day, often specifically mentioning the availability of a catalogue. The ephemeral nature of the auction catalogue is also underlined by the fact that, even for an 1897 sale of watercolours by Lucius O’Brien, founding President of the Royal Canadian Academy, which was acclaimed as a great success, not a single copy of the catalogue has been traced. An 1862 auction catalogue of Cornelius Krieghoff is known to have been in the collection of the Quebec antiquarian George Moore Fairchild; this would have been a unique survivor but for the fact that it disappeared from view after a sale of his possessions in 1913.

The examples that do remain, though often plain and functional in format, provide useful information about the art market. Within Canada, for example, the title page of the catalogue of a sale held by Roberts Art Gallery in Toronto on 6 December 1897 is virtually identical to the title page of the catalogue of a sale held by the firm of Hicks in Montreal later the same week. Although the contents of the sales were different, this similarity suggests a business relationship between the two firms going beyond mere use of the same printer. This kind of coordination is perhaps less surprising in December: Cornelius Krieghoff himself remarked that “the paintings will sell best here before Christmas”. But in any case by the end of the century the art market was increasingly crossing national as well as provincial boundaries. In 1898, two Australian artists, W.J. Wadham and A. Sinclair, collaborated with the Roberts Art Gallery in Toronto on a sale under the banner of ‘The British Colonial Gallery’. Roberts Art Gallery This included landscapes painted in Canada as well as in Australia and Europe. The catalogue for this sale is also interesting as an example of recycling. It was printed initially as a dealer catalogue with fixed prices, for private sale, while the paintings were on exhibition in the Roberts Art Gallery. When sales presumably failed to materialize, the catalogue was simply overprinted in red with the words ‘Sale by auction’ and a sale date. No doubt some of the paintings listed had sold privately at that point, but this simply underlines the fact that an auction catalogue is not always a reliable guide as to what was actually offered at a sale. The practice of offering artworks at higher prices before resorting to public auction in order to liquidate unsold stock and raise cash was a familiar one for Canadian artists. The Australians Wadham and Sinclair adopted a similar tactic with their catalogue in the following year: this time instead of simply overprinting they ran to the expense of printing a new title page, even though the body of the catalogue remained unchanged.

These two artists were Australian, and for them sale by auction was a fall-back position rather than a method of choice. Auction was not usually the most remunerative method of selling works for a 19th-century artist, although one or two Barbizon artists in France seem to have experimented with this method, at a time when contemporary painters were much courted by collectors and re-sale prices could be spectacular: this was hardly the case in Canada. Nonetheless, perhaps the most interesting feature, and one which seems to have been specific to Canada, of the 19th century art auction catalogues is the frequency of sales by single living artists. The names of Cornelius Krieghoff and Lucius O’Brien have already been mentioned, but they were not the only ones. For a lesser-known and especially prolific artist, Thomas Mower Martin, at least 10 catalogues have been preserved.

We saw earlier that the involvement of an individual, such as J.G. Howard, the donor of Colborne Lodge, could have a marked effect on the production values of a collection catalogue. Similarly, when the collections of Oliver Howland and the artist James Avon Smith were auctioned together in Toronto in 1898, the joint illustrated catalogue had a specially designed title page, in Art Nouveau style, by another artist Frederick Henry Brigden. Howland-Smith Catalogue When the seller was an artist selling his or her own work, not surprisingly, the published catalogue often benefited from their aesthetic input. George Reid and Mary H. Reid, husband and wife and both artists, oversaw the production of two catalogues for their auction sales in 1888 and 1892. The first has an engraved self-portrait by George Reid on the cover, and a reproduction of one picture in the sale, entitled ‘Drawing lots’, presumably a touch of humour. The second has thumbnail engravings of selected lots in a left-hand column throughout the catalogue. Paul Peel’s 1890 catalogue has four photo-engravings and Lucius O’Brien’s 1899 catalogue has five, bearing the artists’ signature and therefore presumably reproduced from line drawings made by the artist after his own paintings.

The move towards illustration affected group exhibition catalogues as well as individual auction catalogues. Twin publications were produced for the 19th and 20th Annual exhibitions of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1891 and 1892. In both cases, one is the straightforward unillustrated handlist to the exhibition. Ontario Society of Artists

The other is a colour-printed illustrated version, containing only selected works from the exhibition, and is half-bound in cloth between boards. Ontario Society of Artists. Although the cost of these lavish illustrated publications was undoubtedly offset by the dozen or so pages of advertisements at the back, even in the absence of a printed price it must be deduced that this version was on sale as a money-making souvenir of the exhibition.

The Royal Canadian Academy followed suit a little later in 1899, when its first illustrated catalogue was published for the 20th annual exhibition, containing 16 photogravures printed in green ink. This catalogue contains a note acknowledging the assistance of several persons in contributing sketches. From this and the signatures appearing on some of the illustrations, it appears that either the original artists or other artists made ink or crayon drawings of the original artworks or from photographs of them, so that they could be photomechanically reproduced.

The publication of the Royal Canadian Academy’s first illustrated catalogue in 1899 brings us conveniently to the final year of the 19th century. Only at the end of the first quarter of the century, in 1823, had the first Canadian art catalogue of any kind appeared, a brief and unadorned list of paintings put up for sale by an auctioneer. In the intervening 75 or so years, art catalogues helped to spread a knowledge of art to an increasingly appreciative public.

Jonathan Franklin
jfrankli@gallery.ca