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Saturday, December 23, 2017

Frederick Arthur Verner

Ojibwa Indians on the Rainy River, Frederick Arthur Verner
Quite apart from Frederick Remington and a few others, some of the best and most authentic art depicting the "old west" of North American comes not from American artists, but from their Canadian counterparts. I'm not sure why this might be nor quite how to quantify such a declaration in defending or defining what may, in fact, be something of an estimation on my part. But it seems to me that Canadian artist were more "in touch" with the nature of their exploring spirit than were American painters. American painters of the West always struck me as painting with one eye on their western landscape and the other on the art tastes of the eastern art market and the collectors who bought their work. Frederick Arthur Verner was one such Canadian painter whose work seems to me as exhibiting this somewhat greater level of authenticity.
Burnham Beeches, Frederick Arthur Verner.
I think American painters of the old West were painting very much from a "white man's" point of view. Despite their penchant for painting on location, they were seeing the West and its native inhabitants as something to be subdued, even conquered. In contrast we see a Canadian mentality of first befriending, then merely observing and depicting a landscape and culture no less foreign to them than to American artists, but with an empathy for the fragile nature of both the land and those eking out a physical and cultural existence upon it. Even one-hundred years ago, the survival of both were being challenged and threatened quite literally and figuratively.

Verner's painting of Breakneck Stairs is above, left.
The portrait of Verner is by Selon Jérémie Giles.
Frederick Arthur Verner was born in Sherridan, Ontario, the first of nine children. Born in 1836, Frederick Verner's father, Arthur C. Verner, had immigrated to Canada in 1835 and was principal of Hammondsville Grammar School. In 1852, when he was sixteen, Verner won the 'discretionary prize' for his monochromatic drawing exhibited at the Upper Canada Provincial Art Exhibition. Born in 1836, Verner was a great admirer of the Canadian western artist, Paul Kane who was a quarter-century older. However, these two Irishmen shared the same fascination with the lives of Canada's indigenous peoples. Verner enrolled at London's Heatherley's Academy in 1856. He served in the British military, first in 1858 as a member of the Yorkshire militia, then in the British Legion in 1860. Two years later Verner returned to Canada where he worked as a photographic colorist, though he spent the majority of his time sketching the wilderness and Indian tribal communities in the area.

Indian Encampment, (watercolor) 1882, Frederick Verner
Verner had an advantage over most painters of his time. He was a professional photographer as well as a painter devoted to his art. His paintings testify to a remarkable accuracy and fidelity, as evidenced, in particular, by a sketch for a watercolor titled Breakneck Stairs (upper-left in the montage), which dates from 1876. It is so faithful that 125 years later, at the bottom of the Dufferin Terrace in Old Quebec, the Petite Champlain Street, its buildings, and its "daredevil" staircases are still recognizable. Verner had a concern for detail that was reflected in all that he painted, be it a portrait, a landscape, or the scenes of the daily life of the bison for which he remains the undisputed master.

Buffalo, 1910, Frederick Verner
Frederick Verner established himself in Toronto as a painter of the Canadian wilderness. He specialized in poetic depictions of the western prairie (top), in particular scenes of buffalo and Aboriginal encampments in watercolor and oils. Verner also painted portraits, rural and urban scenes. In 1880 he moved to England. Verner used the signature F.A. Verner on much of his work there. While in London, Verner conducted personal studies at the British Museum and the National Gallery. Other than this training, Verner was self-taught. While in London he lived with his aunt.

Ojibway Indian Encampment, 1873, Frederick Verner.
Portrait of Paul Kane,
Frederick Verner
Upon returning to Canada in 1862, Verner established a studio as a portrait photographer, which he maintained for about twelve years. From 1868 onward, Verner also worked occasionally at the Notman & Fraser Photo-graphic Studio as a colorist, painting elaborate back-grounds and painting over photographic portraits in watercolor and oils. The Notman & Fraser Studio was an important meeting place for a variety of artists. There Verner re-acquainted himself with Paul Kane, who lived in Toronto, as he continued to be inspired by the elder artist's subject matter. Verner painted three portraits of his mentor Paul Kane, the most accomplished one (right), appears to have been based on a photograph and shows Kane later in life looking a little less rumpled than he did in photographs. Their friendship continued until Kane's death in 1871.

Ojibway Camp at Northwest Angle, Lake of the Woods , 
1874, Frederick Verner.
Verner travelled internationally from time to time to promote his career. In 1865 he went to New York and showed his painting, On the Madawaska River, at the annual exhibition of the National Academy of Design in New York. The following year Verner exhibited at the Provincial Exhibition, Toronto, and won numerous prizes, including; best photographic portrait finished in watercolor, and best photographic portrait finished in oil paint (it's hard to imagine such categories today). Two years later at the 1868 Provincial Exhibition, Verner also won a number of prizes including; best original landscape of a Canadian subject in oils and best original landscape of a Canadian subject in watercolor.

Ojibway family, 1878, Frederick Verner
Verner's only confirmed and documented trip to the Canadian far west to sketch first hand scenes of the prairies and native encampments took place in 1873. Verner's voyage took him to Upper Fort Garry (which became Winnipeg in 1874). The Manitoba Free Press reported that, "Mr. F. A. Verner, the Canadian artist, is in town and brings with him over two-hundred sketches of the Northwest." Verner made a series of five scenic sketches that recorded his travels in the area which he kept in his possession until his death. These watercolors and sketches depict Ojibway encampments along rivers and lakes with teepees and canoes. Occasionally they include figures of men, women, and children. Verner used these sketches as preparatory studies for many of his subsequent paintings, as he had the habit of combining scenes and details from various studies in his finished works.

Shooting the Rapids, Frederick Verner.
In 1874, Verner closed his photographic business in Toronto to dedicated himself exclusively to painting. Two years later he made a trip to the United States and visited the Philadelphia Centennial Exhibition of 1876 where he exhibited his oil painting Hudson Bay Company Officials at Brulé Portage on Rainy River, 1876, a strongly accomplished work that depicts a misty wilderness landscape with several figures and canoes near the shore. About this same time, Verner also began making life drawings of buffalo from zoos in New York and Niagara. The buffalo were nearing extinction in the American West while prairie buffalo were virtually extinct in Canada by 1880. Verner moved permanently to England in 1880, although he still continued to exhibit in Canada and the U.S. At the age of forty-six, Verner married Mary Chilcott, a widow, in whose Toronto home he had boarded for over ten years during 1870s. Even well into his seventies, the artist continued to go on sketching trips to Scotland. Frederick Arthur Verner died in London in 1928 at the age of ninety-one.

Still-life, Frederick Verner. Although this
poinsettia still-life seems totally out
of character for Verner, it's quite
appropriate for the season.


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