Canadian Art and Architecture

from The New Book of Knowledge®

ART HISTORY ON-DEMAND > Cultures and Civilizations 

The art and architecture of Canada consists of two separate traditions. They are the art of native peoples, who lived in the country for thousands of years; and the art of descendants of Europeans, who began arriving about 400 years ago.

Native Art and Architecture

Canada's native peoples—both Indian and Inuit (formerly called Eskimos)—are divided into several tribal groups. The tribal groups differ greatly in language, customs, and environment. As a result, there are many native artistic traditions.

Native American Art
Prehistoric rock carvings and paintings are the earliest surviving examples of native American art. The exact meaning of these simple images is unknown. Later Indian art showed great variety in design and materials. Colorful geometric and floral patterns embroidered on clothing were common to native tribes across Canada. Drums, masks, and other objects used in religious ceremonies or to mark special events also were richly decorated. Among the most dramatic of all Indian art forms were the carved totem poles of the Northwest Coast Indians.

In the 1800's, native Indian art was produced mainly for tourists. But the last half of the 1900's saw a revival of traditional forms such as carving. In addition, new forms emerged among the eastern woodland tribes, such as the Ojibwa and Cree. They began to illustrate their legends in striking paintings. Other Indian artists who do not work in the traditions of native art seek acceptance in the wider artistic world.

Inuit Art
The earliest examples of Inuit art are delicate carvings made from bone, ivory, or antler. These carvings are in the shapes of faces, figures, and birds. Later, traditional art forms were neglected during centuries of producing objects for trade with Europeans. Today the Inuit carve in soapstone and ivory as well as engage in newer art forms such as drawing and printmaking. Their work is characterized by delicacy, simplicity, and a reverence for nature.

Traditional native cultures also produced notable buildings. Examples are the longhouse of the Iroquois, the tipi (teepee) of the Plains Indians, and the Arctic Inuit's igloo. They were all well suited to each tribe's particular lifestyle and environment. Today most traditional native dwellings have been replaced by conventional modern houses.

French Colonial Period

Permanent French settlements were founded in Canada in the early 1600's. And Canada became a colony of France in 1663. For the next century the art and architecture of the colony was dependent on styles imported from France.

Almost all early artists were French-born clergymen who specialized in religious works. They decorated local churches with paintings and wooden sculpture in the baroque style. By the mid-1700's, merchants in Montreal and Quebec City had grown wealthy enough to purchase works of art. This created a small market for portraits and landscape paintings.

The two most common building types in French Canada were the homestead and the parish church. They were built in the French medieval and baroque styles.

British Colonial Period

After 1760, when Canada became a British colony, the main source for styles in art and architecture shifted from France to England.

Sculpture continued to be mainly decorative works carved in wood. But painting underwent several new developments. British officers stationed at forts throughout eastern Canada sought to accurately depict the Canadian landscape in detailed watercolor paintings. More imaginative paintings of nature were produced by immigrant British watercolor artists.

The works of two artists from the mid-1800's are landmarks of Canadian art. Paul Kane traveled across the country recording the lifestyle of Canada's Indians in sketches and paintings. Cornelius Krieghoff is best known for his scenes of life in rural Quebec.

Architecture of the period was greatly influenced by the Georgian style then popular in England. This was especially true for public buildings. The early 1800's also saw a revival of the medieval Gothic style for both churches and public buildings.

The New Nation

The modern Canadian nation was founded in 1867, and artists were inspired by a new sense of national pride. Landscape artists such as Lucius O'Brien and John Fraser celebrated the country's dramatic natural features. They painted in the romantic style.

A close connection with Europe persisted at the turn of the century. Many of the best painters of the time, including Paul Peel, Robert Harris, and William Brymner, trained in Paris. They returned to introduce Canadians to various current styles, such as impressionism and post-impressionism. James Wilson Morrice and Horatio Walker gained wide international reputations.

New sculptural techniques and use of materials such as plaster and bronze allowed artists to portray subjects with greater expression and realism. Quebecois sculptors, including MarcAurèle Suzor-Coté and Philippe Hébert, expressed their pride in French Canadian history by producing public monuments.

In architecture the Gothic revival continued its popularity, along with revivals of other styles of the past.

The Modern Era

Painting in the 1920's was dominated by the Toronto-based artists known as the Group of Seven. Dedicated to producing a truly nationalist art, they concentrated on portraying Canada's rugged northern wilderness. Important contributions were also made by Tom Thomson, whose landscapes inspired the Group of Seven; Emily Carr; and David Milne.

In 1939, John Lyman founded the Contemporary Arts Society. The society encouraged the development of a modern art. The principles of surrealism were brought to Canada in the 1940's by a group of artists who came to be called the Automatistes. Notable in this group were Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle. In the 1950's, Toronto was introduced to abstract expressionism and other modernist styles with the works of Painters Eleven. After 1960, Canadian painters continued to work in a variety of styles. But painting ceased to be as dominant in Canadian art as it was in the past.

Notable sculptors working after 1920 included Albert Laliberté, Suzor-Coté, and Elizabeth Wyn Wood. In the early 1950's the modernist styles of cubism and constructivism appeared in the sculptures of Anne Kahane and Louis Archambault. Great diversity in style, material, and subject marks contemporary Canadian sculpture. Sculptors work in plastic, neon, and fiberglass as well as traditional materials.

Canada's earliest skyscrapers were built in Toronto and Montreal in the 1920's and 1930's. They were among the first buildings to display the curved lines and reduced details of art deco, a style that remained popular until World War II. After 1945, many factories, schools, and offices were built in the international style. It uses simple shapes and modern materials such as steel, glass, and concrete. Later, postmodernist designs, which combine elements of past architectural styles, began to appear in major cities.

Ken Dewar
Education Services, Art Gallery of Ontario

Help | Privacy Policy




(Separate multiple email addresses with commas)

Check this box to send yourself a copy of the email.


Scholastic respects your privacy. We do not retain or distribute lists of email addresses.