Canada's first superstar artist

By Tom Villemaire, Special to Postmedia Network

Lucius Richard O'Brien was one of Canada's first native-born artists, though he was never "just an artist."

He grew up in the early 1800s on a homestead call "The Woods." He was born in August 1832 in Shanty Bay, where he was raised until a young teen. Shanty Bay was the Canadian backwoods when the O'Brien's first moved there -- they were among the earliest settlers. But Lucius was raised with a strong foundation in the arts as well as science.

Lucius, or Young Dick, as he was known in the family, had Mary Sophia Gapper, an Irish woman of landed gentry, for a mother and Edward George O'Brien for a father.

Edward was one of the early leading lights in Canadian business history and a pillar of the community in central Ontario. Responsible for no less than the construction of two churches (Collier Trinity in Barrie and the rammed-earth church in Shanty Bay), he also was instrumental in the founding of newspapers, the establishment of the African-Canadian veteran settlement in Oro Township and was one of the province's early magistrates and the lieutenant-colonel of the local regiment.

So, Lucius certainly had some shoes to fill. And he did so amazingly well.

Mary O'Brien, Lucius's mother, kept copious journal entries and she remarked on her son's interest in drawing and painting from an early age.

He pursued these interests while taking his formal education at Upper Canada College, where it's believed he studied under John George Howard, an architect and engineer. Lucius worked in an architect's office starting in 1847 at the age of 15 but later moved on to civil engineering.

His interest in the arts continued -- the first public evidence of O'Brien's work as an artist is an engraving in The Emigrant Churchman in Canada (1849), a book by A.W.H. Rose, described as being written by a "pioneer of the wilderness."

A year later, in December 1850, Lucius advertised in Toronto as a drawing master and in October 1851, he showed a landscape drawing in the Toronto Mechanics' Institute annual exhibition.

His output and interest grew over the next few years as he prepared drawings, usually of an architectural nature, for a number of Toronto engravers and lithographers. He continued to exhibit his work -- he won two prizes for drawings in the professional category of the Upper Canada Provincial Exhibition in Hamilton in 1853 -- and throughout 1854, he was employed as drawing master at a Toronto girls' school.

His sketchbook contains dated drawings done around Shanty Bay from 1852-59. Lucius was documented as an artist in the 1856 Toronto directory.

In the late 1850s, he continued to dabble in the arts, but he moved north, where he concentrated his energies on running family businesses, including an Orillia-area quarry and a shop, and entering public service -- he was on Orillia council from 1858-61 and was the reeve in 1859 and 1861. He was also the St. James churchwarden in Oro from 1859-61 and 1863-64. In 1860, he married Margaret St. John in Orillia.

At one point, he set aside his sketchbook in favour of following his calling as a pillar of the community and local businessman. It was eight years before he picked it up again. In 1869, during a trip to Europe, he began sketching and painting at a far more industrious rate, capturing scenes around Montpellier, France, in January and early in April at Bulford in Wiltshire, England, where his mother's family estate was based.

Back in Canada the same year, he settled in Toronto, where he is listed in the 1870 directory as an associate of Quetton St. George and Company, general merchants and importers of Mediterranean produce for business. Within three years of his return, he was active in the Toronto art scene again and in January 1873, he joined the fledgling Ontario Society of Artists, including having a showing in its inaugural exhibition that April. The following year, he was chosen as vice-president of the society, a post he filled with distinction until 1880, when he was replaced by Robert Harris, who created the famous Fathers of Confederation painting.

O'Brien wasn't just a talented artist; his impact on the arts world was also felt in his administrative genius. For many, his most important achievement as vice-president of the Ontario Society of Artists was establishing the Ontario School of Art in 1876. In addition to teaching watercolour painting at the school, he served on its council until 1879, at which time he and two others ran the school.

Lucius clearly thought Toronto was the centre of the arts universe in Canada. A letter to his friend, Harris, in 1879 pulls no punches: "Toronto is the best art centre in Canada at present and there are more artists here than anywhere else."

How does someone like Lucius O'Brien explode on the scene? Well, his family had connections -- they were part of the Family Compact, the small group of conservative men who held and clung to most of the power (political, judicial and economic) in Upper Canada from the 1810s to the 1840s. And they could be nasty and cliquish. For example, Lucius's father, his friends and his uncle apparently verbally attacked William Lyon Mackenzie during a public meeting for the 1830 election, delivering "speeches abusing (me) in very gross and often disgusting language," while Edward O'Brien himself "lost all self-command, and went on to abuse (me) in a strain at once so vulgar, coarse and indecent that it astonished everyone present," recalled Mackenzie.

But he clearly had artistic talent, even without any formal training. Certainly, the watercolour lessons his mother gave him helped him early on. Lucius continued to work in watercolour during his first few years of painting, "exhibiting large, spacious, light-filled images of small-boat activity on the waterways of Ontario. Like Under the cliffs, Port Stanley (1873), in a private collection, they are all harmoniously balanced, delicate yet vitally solid pictures of strong feeling," said Dennis Reid, in the Dictionary of Canadian Biographies entry on Lucius.

In fact, Reid wrote a whole book just on Lucius. He compares the Simcoe County artist's technique with certain of the Pre-Raphaelites and their followers in England after the mid-19th century. "No one in Toronto could rival O'Brien, a fact that was noted in every exhibition review of the day," said Reid.

Lucius also led another trend -- the inclusion of First Nations people in his painting.

By 1873, Lucius was touring Ontario, including the capital region, Lake Erie and Owen Sound. In 1876, during the American centenary, he attended the Philadelphia Centennial International Exhibition with six of his large watercolours. By the following year, he'd moved on to oils.

In 1877, the Intercolonial Railway was revealing whole new areas of the country's east coast to the public and Lucius was among the first artists to take advantage of the access rail was granting to the young country. In 1878, he went to Grand Manan Island, in the Bay of Fundy, where he began perhaps his most successful period as a painter. That year, he also first exhibited with the National Academy of Design in New York. In February 1879, he was in Boston studying art schools on behalf of the Ontario Department of Education, and in Ottawa seeking the patronage of the new governor general. He passed that summer mainly in Quebec City, sketching there and as far afield as the Rivière Saguenay.

Lucius's ability to capture the mood and light of a subject is underlined in works like Northern Head of Grand Manan.

His work with the governor general paid off -- the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was established in 1880 and Lucius became its first president, a position he held for a decade. A key element of a Canadian academy was the establishment of a national gallery through the deposit of a "diploma" picture by each academician. Lucius's Sunrise on the Saguenay (1880) was his contribution. It was possibly the first "Canadian statement" painting ever made and it was his contribution to the academy's first exhibition, which opened in Ottawa in March 1880, and has been a prominent feature of the National Gallery of Canada's collection since.

Lucius retired in 1880 from the business world and dedicated himself completely to the arts. He continued to travel: to Ottawa in March 1880 for the first exhibition of the academy, to England in June, then back to Canada in August to gather material in Quebec for the two paintings commissioned by the governor general for the queen.

In 1886, he was among the select artists sent across Canada to capture scenes along the new railroad in the west, similar to his earlier work in eastern Canada.

In 1890, Lucius started to slow down. He continued to sketch in Quebec and the lower St. Lawrence. In the mid-1890s, he returned to Simcoe County, where he offered private lessons and sketched local scenery in the Orillia-Barrie area and especially along the Severn River. His last illustrations are from this period, February 1896, 120 years ago. Three years later, he was stricken with an illness the prevented him from painting. After his death in December 1899, the popularity of his works declined.

Featured Businesses

Go to the Marketplace »