A brief history of art in Hamilton

A young man left Hamilton in 1881 to study art in Europe . He dreamed, one day, of being classed with the ‘swells'. Three years later, he made the following observation, in a letter sent home to his mother: “Surely man was made for something else but the signing of his name to engines of commerce. He must respect other branches of the great tree. If he stops to think a moment he cannot help but feel that commerce, science, religion, and Art are things inseparable, that where commerce and science feed our bodies… the others must occupy and perfect our brains. They are all so necessary to complete the machine called existence” (1) The writer of the letter was William Blair Bruce (1859-1906), one of Hamilton 's most accomplished historical artists.

The sentiment expressed in Bruce's letter was indicative of a growing enthusiasm in the late 19 th century for all the possibilities that art could embrace. Emerging artists saw a direct relationship between the growth of a National Identity, and the evolution of a type of art which would engender and edify the new spirit of patriotism and refinement. Some Hamilton artists like Bruce, John Wentworth Russell , and Albert Robinson removed either to Europe or the States to pursue courses of classical instruction at recognized fine art schools. They hoped to acquire a high degree of technical skill which would allow them to compete directly with the European artists being collected at that time in Canada . At the same time they were also exposed to important Continental art trends, such as impressionism.

Other artists chose to pursue studies and careers closer to home. The Hamilton Art School provided a ‘vibrant and progressive' (2) curriculum which allowed students to pursue fulfilling careers in all fields relating to art: technical, commercial, academic, and professional painting.

The early teachers at the Art School were practicing artists, and included such significant landscape painters as J. R. Seavey , and J.S. Gordon . Along with fellow 19 th century artists H. N. McEvoy , T.H. Wilkinson , and J. H. Caddy , they left a legacy of charming works, in watercolour and oil, which depicted the distinctive beauty of the ambitious city, Hamilton .

Artists of national interest, including Group of Seven members J.E.H . MacDonald and A.J. Casson , and associate member Albert Robinson , began their careers in Hamilton in the early 1900's. Others, like Blair Bruce and John Russell, started their careers in Hamilton , but went on to greater accomplishments elsewhere. Painters in this group included Arthur Crisp , J.K. Lawson, Laura Muntz Lyall , and Hannah R. Kelly .

The illustrators were Arthur Heming , Corey Kilvert , and Arthur Brown . Brown is considered one of the foremost American illustrators.

Even during the Great Depression, art flourished in Hamilton . Remarkable bodies of work were produced by the likes of Leonard Hutchison, sculptor John Sloan, and Henry Walter Smith. Their efforts mirrored significant art trends developing in the States under the auspices of the Works Progress Administration.

Henry W. Smith Winter

World War II brought significant change to the Hamilton art scene, as Abstract Expressionism made its presence felt. Spearheaded by Hortense Gordon and Edna and Percy Tacon , the movement gained in momentum and collector appreciation throughout the 1950's. Gordon, a student of Hans Hoffman, was an important member of the seminal Canadian abstract group, Painters 11. These artists can be credited with pioneering and legitimizing the principles of abstraction, both locally and nationally.

Traditional art continued to grow in Hamilton alongside its more radical sister. Artists like T.R. MacDonald , first director of the Hamilton Art Gallery , Frank Panabaker , and Hugh Robertson , produced compelling work which recorded the energy and cultural dynamism of the city.

Another innovative art group which exhibited in the 1940's and 50's was the Contemporary Artists of Hamilton. Rae Hendershot , a one time member, was particularly noteworthy for her figurative work.

The Earls Court Gallery began showing original art in 1974, concentrating primarily on works on paper by local artists (etchings, lithographs and other print mediums). After 1980 the Gallery moved to its current Hess Village location, where the inventory was expanded to include oils, acrylics and watercolours .

As the Gallery enters its fourth decade of exhibiting historical and contemporary art, we strengthen our dedication to presenting works that show sound technical craftsmanship, innovative diversity, and vibrant artistic and poetic sensibilities, works emblematic of Hamilton 's rich artistic tradition.