Canadian Art

Canadian art and architecture

Canadian art and architecture, the various types and styles arts and structures produced in the geographic area that now constitutes Canada.

For a discussion of the art of indigenous peoples of Canada, see North American Native art.

The Colonial Period

Among the outstanding art forms of early colonial Canada was French-Canadian wood carving, chiefly figures of saints and retables for the churches. This art flourished from 1675 (when Bishop Laval established a school of arts and crafts near Quebec) until c.1850. The art reached its height after the separation from France when, freed from the French Renaissance tradition, it developed a local character beautifully exemplified in such work as that in the Church of the Holy Family on Orléans Island and in the Provincial Museum at Quebec. The two great Quebec families of carvers were the Levasseurs (18th cent.) and the Baillairgés (19th cent.).

The colonial period also produced fine embroidery (examples are kept at the Ursuline convent, Quebec) and several outstanding portraits executed in a naive folk-art style. Before 1880 most of the only other paintings and drawings produced in Canada were those by the colonial topographers, many of them English army officers. Most of this work is purely documentary.


Paul Kane, who painted Native Americans, and Cornelius Krieghoff, who depicted the life of the settlers, were the earliest genre painters. Thomas Davies produced vibrant landscapes in watercolor in the second half of the 18th cent. J. A. Fraser, known for his scenes of the Rockies, was instrumental in founding the Ontario College of Art at Toronto in 1875. Five years later the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (at Montreal) and the National Gallery of Canada (at Ottawa) were founded. Since 1910 the National Gallery has played an active part in Canadian life through its traveling exhibits. Its collection is the finest in Canada. Today there are art schools and galleries in all the major Canadian cities.

In the late 19th cent. the outstanding artists were the landscapists Daniel Fowler, F. M. Bell-Smith, and Robert Gagen; the portrait painters Robert Harris, Antoine Palamondon, and Théophile Hamel; and two great cartoonists, J. W. Bengough and Henri Julien. They were followed by a number of celebrated painters, including George A. Reid, Franklin Brownell, Florence Carlyle, F. McG. Knowles, Horatio Walker, M. A. de Foy Suzor-Côté, William Brymner, Maurice Cullen, and Tom Thomson. J. W. Morrice, who worked chiefly outside Canada, is perhaps the most celebrated of Canadian landscapists.

In 1920 Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and F. Horsman Varley formed the Group of Seven, dedicated to painting the Canadian landscape. Traveling and working all over the dominion, they did much to awaken the interest of the country at large. Their approach, which emphasized flat, strongly colored design, tended toward a poster style. The cultural center of the Seven was Toronto. In Montreal toward the end of World War II a new, radical group was formed, including Alfred Pellan, John Lyman, P. E. Borduas, and J. P. Riopelle. They evolved the automatiste movement, influenced by Matisse, Picasso, and surrealism.

Other major painters, working in a wide variety of styles, include David Milne, Emily Carr, Pegi Nicol MacLeod, B. C. Binning, J. L. Shadbolt, and Harold Town. In the late 1960s the op art movement flourished in Montreal. Canadian painters currently at work employ a variety of postmodern styles and cannot be grouped as a school.

Sculpture, Decorative Arts, and Graphics

After the decline of wood carving, little sculpture was produced until 1900. Philippe Hébert, Suzor-Côté, Alfred Laliberté, Tait McKenzie, and Walter Allward became well-established sculptors. Among the later sculptors, Emanuel Hahn, Louis Archambault, Elizabeth Wyn Wood, and Henri Hébert are notable. The French Canadians have an important tradition in such decorative arts and crafts as metalworking and rug hooking. In the graphic arts Clarence Gagnon, W. J. Phillips, and Albert Dumouchel are considered among the foremost Canadian print makers of the 20th cent.


Canadian architecture adheres in the main to European and American trends, especially in the planning of public buildings. From the 18th to the 20th cent., French Renaissance, English Georgian, Neoclassical, and Gothic revival designs were successively dominant. A notable example of Gothic revival is found in the buildings of Parliament Hill, Ottawa (begun 1859), by Thomas Fuller and others. The Canadian Centre for Architecture (Montreal), a modern archive and research center created by Phyllis Lambert, opened in 1989. Based on the ideas of H. H. Richardson, well-known structures in the château style are the Château Frontenac (1890), Quebec City, and the Banff Springs Hotel (1913), Banff, Alberta.

Major modern buildings include the Electrical Building and Civic Auditorium, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. Church and domestic architecture in Canada have consistently shown originality. Particularly in Quebec during the colonial period, charming rural stone houses and churches were developed—typically low and rectangular, with steep pitched roofs and uptilting eaves. Moshe Safdie's remarkable "Habitat," a dynamic and original approach to housing, was erected in Montreal for Expo '67. Arthur Erickson is among the best-known of contemporary Canadian architects.


See studies on Canadian art by J. R. Harper (1966 and 1972) and W. Townsend, ed. (1970); on architecture by P. Mayrand and J. Bland (1971); D. Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1974); D. G. Burnett, Contemporary Canadian Art (1983); L. Whiteson, Modern Canadian Architecture (1983).

The Columbia Encyclopedia, 6th ed. Copyright© 2013, The Columbia University Press.

Selected full-text books and articles on this topic

Canadian Painters, from Paul Kane to the Group of Seven
Donald W. Buchanan.
Phaidon Press, 1945
The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters
Evelyn Walters.
Dundurn, 2005
Staging a Woman Painter's Life: Six Versions of Emily Carr
Nothof, Anne F.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 31, No. 3, September 1998
Image, Text, and Spirit: Kate Braid and the Paintings of Emily Carr
Sand, Cy-Thea.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 35, No. 2, June 2002
Sunfield Painter: The Reminiscences of John Davenall Turner
John Davenall Turner.
University of Alberta Press, 1982
Northern Exposure
Harris, Patricia Roberts; Lyon, David.
Americas (English Edition), Vol. 47, No. 2, March-April 1995
Cover and Uncover: Eric Cameron
Ann Davis.
University of Calgary Press, 2011
True North: Inuit Art and the Canadian Imagination
Pupchek, Leanne Stuart.
American Review of Canadian Studies, Spring-Summer 2001
Art and Empire - Wembley, 1924
August, Tom.
History Today, Vol. 43, October 1993
Woman as Artist: Papers in Honour of Marsha Hanen
Christine Mason Sutherland; Beverly Jean Rasporich.
University of Calgary Press, 1993
Thawing the Frozen Image/word: Vernacular Postmodern Aesthetics
Garrett-Petts, W. F.; Lawrence, Donald.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 31, No. 1, March 1998
From Landscape to Soundscape: The Northern Arts of Canada
Grace, Sherrill; Haag, Stefan.
Mosaic (Winnipeg), Vol. 31, No. 2, June 1998
A World Apart: The Multicultural World of Visible Minorities and the Art World of Canada
Li, Peter S.
The Canadian Review of Sociology and Anthropology, Vol. 31, No. 4, November 1994
George W. Brown.
University of California Press, 1950
Librarian’s tip: "Canadian Art" begins on p. 605
A Dictionary of Twentieth-Century Art
Ian Chilvers.
Oxford University Press, 1999
Librarian’s tip: "Canadian Group of Painters" begins on p. 112 and "Group of Seven" begins on p. 258
The Concise Oxford Dictionary of Art and Artists
Ian Chilvers.
Oxford University Press, 1996 (2nd edition)
Librarian’s tip: "Automatistes, Les" begins on p. 28 and "Group of Seven" begins on p. 227
Paul Kane's Great Nor-West
Diane Eaton; Sheila Urbanek.
University of British Columbia Press, 1995
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