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Vistas: Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway

By Roger Boulet, with an essay by Terry Fenton

Review By Maria Tippett

May 19, 2017

BC Studies no. 194 Summer 2017  | p. 214-215

Vistas, Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway is about the ways in which painters and photographs met the challenge of capturing the mountain landscape west of Calgary during the late nineteenth century. This book is also about how their images were used to promote the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR).

William Cornelius Van Horne had one goal in mind when he hired artists and photographers to record the scenery along the CPR railway in the 1880s. The self-made man and, in 1880, general manager of the CPR, wanted to build a tourist industry for the fledging railway. One way of doing this was to advertise the grandeur of the Selkirk and Rocky Mountain landscape through visual images.

From the middle of the 1880s paintings and photographs celebrating the beauty of the western Canadian landscape appeared at expositions and fairs from London’s Colonial and Indian Exhibition (1886) to Paris’s Exposition Universelle (1900). They were published in the thirty-six installments of Picturesque Canada, in the Canadian Illustrated News, and in Wilfred Campbell Cameron’s seminal tome, Canada (1907). They were displayed in the lobbies of the CPR’s hotels and featured in the company’s promotional literature. And they were shown at the annual exhibitions of the Royal Canadian Academy and Britain’s Royal Academy of Art.

Photographers were given free passes on the CPR two years before the line reached the west coast in 1886. Rail Car No. 1 was fitted out with a developing studio and sleeping quarters and one of the first to use it was William McFarlane Notman, son of Montreal’s more famous photographer William Notman. During the course of taking his photographs, the twenty-seven-year-old photographer stuck close to the tracks. This was because his large box camera and tripod was cumbersome; his 8 x 10 inch glass plate negatives were heavy and fragile. Even so, over the course of two decades, Notman produced remarkable images of the mountains at Canmore, at the Kicking Horse Valley and, perhaps his most accomplished photograph, the Castle Crags, Mount Lefroy, Hazel Peak, and Lake Agnes at Banff. As Terry Fenton shows in his learned essay, “Why Mountains,” Notman’s images were accomplished because he possessed “a refined sense of the picturesque” (174). And this is not all. Notman’s mountain photographs anticipated the work of America’s Ansel Adams among other twentieth century photographers for whom mountain scenery was to become the main subject of their work.

An avid art collector and amateur artist himself, it is not surprising that Van Horne included artists in his promotional scheme. Roger Boulet tells us how railway artists had to cope with view-interfering smoke from forest fires, with rain, and with mosquitoes. (This may account for why some artists based their paintings on photographs.) He also demonstrates how many artists like William Brymner, who received his railway pass in 1886, had a love-hate relationship with his subject. As Brymner wrote to Van Horne during one of his sketching journeys, he had “never seen anything much more beautiful in my life or difficult to paint.” The challenge of producing anything that would satisfy his boss back in Montreal had left the artist “very blue” (157).

Lucius Richard O’Brien, Thomas Mower Martin, John Hammond, Frederic Marlett Bell-Smith and William Brymner adapted notions of the sublime and the picturesque — concepts borrowed from an earlier generation of British landscape painters — to their rendering of western Canada’s mountain landscape. What they produced in oil and watercolour not only boosted tourism on the CPR. It enhanced Canada’s stature within the British Empire and complemented the expansionist agenda of the Dominion Government. But above all, as this important volume demonstrates, these artists shaped the way in which we view and photograph the mountain landscape today.

Vistas: Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway
Roger Boulet, with an essay by Terry Fenton
Calgary: Glenbow Museum, 2009