This painting was brought to my attention by my accountant, the present owner, whose elderly mother had owned the work for many years. Previously, the painting had belonged to her grandmother and had been in the family prior to her acquiring it. It is entitled Indian River, North Arm of Inlet, and is oil on canvas, mounted on board. It measures about 16 x 20 inches and is signed and dated H. J. de Forest 1908.
Photograph of Indian River, north arm of the inlet, as it is today
Canadian artist Henry Josiah de Forest (1855-1924) was born in either St. John or Rothesay, New Brunswick. He first visited Vancouver in 1891 and settled here permanently in 1898.
His paintings of the landscape and the surrounding environs were exhibited in Vancouver in the 1890s. In 1894 he became the first secretary of the Art, Historical and Scientific Association. He was also the first secretary of the Vancouver Museum, eventually serving as the Museums curator from 1905 until 1912. During this time, in 1910, he tried, unsuccessfully, to establish a Masonic museum in Vancouver.
De Forest was not a Modernist landscape painter nor was he a member of the Group of Seven; however, he was their contemporary. Like other Canadian painters, Paul Peel, George Reid and James Wilson Morrice, he had studied drawing and painting at the Academy Julien in Paris, but unlike the Group of Seven he did not achieve national recognition. His realistic depictions of the natural landscape were perhaps taken for granted because, after all, to view the real thing all one had to do was wander off into the natural environment.
Canada has a rich and continuing tradition of realism in landscape painting dating back to the arrival of the first European-trained artists of the late 18th and early 19th centuries. Some of these early practitioners were professional soldiers trained by the military in topographical landscape painting. Others were members of the religious community idealizing the landscape for purposes aligned with the conversion of the indigenous peoples to Christianity.
The audience for Canadian landscape painting has been fractured and hesitant, subjected to regional discrepancies as to the cultural significance of landscape pictures. The Group of Seven and their contemporaries are perhaps the most well-known group of Canadian landscape painters, but there were others like de Forest who were just as committed, practising in places far removed from the cultural hubs of Montreal and Toronto. Unfortunately (or fortunately) these artists did not receive the recognition they deserved perhaps due to the absence of a receptive audience.
As Canadians we know what landscape art is and what it means. However, it appears we have a strong preference for regional interpretations, perhaps due to the socio-political differences of audiences from coast to coast. In a very real sense the diversity of the audience influences and determines our collective understanding of landscape art.
No, Canadians are not afraid of historic landscape art because for us, it represents the familiar, which we often politely ignore and frequently take for granted, just as we sometimes do, the vastness and terrible beauty of the land we inhabit.
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