Guest Curator: Arlene Gehmacher

Banner for the guest curator series. CANADA 150 is in red along the left side of the banner and then the bilingual text: Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? and under that text is Guest curator series.Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? is a new exhibition by Library and Archives Canada (LAC) marking the 150th anniversary of Canadian Confederation. This exhibition is accompanied by a year-long blog series.

Join us every month during 2017 as experts, from LAC, across Canada and even farther afield, provide additional insights on items from the exhibition. Each “guest curator” discusses one item, then adds another to the exhibition—virtually.

Be sure to visit Canada: Who Do We Think We Are? at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa between June 5, 2017, and March 1, 2018. Admission is free.

Bunch of Wildflowers by Susanna Moodie, ca. 1870

Yellow dandelion in front of blue and pink wildflowers mingled with leaves, painted on sepia card.

Bunch of Wildflowers by Susanna Moodie, ca. 1870. (MIKAN 2837436)

Susanna Moodie called Canada’s woods “the prison house.” Flower painting may have been her form of therapy. It allowed her to impose order and refinement on one small piece of nature.

Tell us about yourself

Studying the visual culture of Canada has been a pursuit of mine since first being hired to research primary archival and printed sources for an exhibition on historical art produced in Canada. I was hooked—the material satisfied both my love of fine art as well as cultural context. I feel very fortunate to have been able to make it my career.

Is there anything else about this item that you feel Canadians should know?

Watercolours, such as Bunch of Wildflowers, were for Moodie not just a pastime to create gifts for family and friends, but also a commodity that could be used for cash income or trade. With a price tag of $3 to $5, she could pay her servant. William Notman, the famed Canadian photographer, is known to have accepted—at his own suggestion—an autographed watercolour as payment for his photographs. (Moodie obliged with A Group of Crimson, White, Yellow, and Pink Roses.)

The bunch of wildflowers—including periwinkle, dandelion, and clematis—may well have been picked by Moodie herself, but her arranging them into a watercolour was part of her domestic economy.

Tell us about another related item that you would like to add to the exhibition.

Two colour plates of colourful flowers with green leaves. Left: Wild Orange Red Lily, Harebell, and Showy Lady’s Slipper. Right: Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Large-flowered Bellwort, Wood Anemone, and Spring Beauty.

Image on the left: Wild Orange Red Lily, Harebell, and Showy Lady’s Slipper (MIKAN 2905466) Image on the right: Sharp-lobed Hepatica, Large-flowered Bellwort, Wood Anemone, and Spring Beauty (MIKAN 2905471) Plates from Canadian Wild Flowers by Agnes FitzGibbon, published by John Lovell, Montréal, 1868 (AMICUS 49189)

Agnes FitzGibbon, daughter of Susanna Moodie, collaborated with her aunt Catharine Parr Traill (Susanna’s sister) on Canadian Wild Flowers, published in 1868 and praised for its scientific accuracy. Susanna Moodie’s Bunch of Wildflowers bespeaks her joy and passion in picking and aesthetically arranging flowers, and immortalizes her artistry in watercolour. In contrast, FitzGibbon’s fine illustrations are informative, her delineation precise to ensure legibility of specimen.

FitzGibbon’s project was from the start a business venture, each of the 500 copies containing 10 lithographed plates, each hand coloured (with help!), and accompanied by Parr Traill’s descriptions both poetic and naturalist. Executed over 1867 and 1868, Canadian Wild Flowers in subject and timing surely assumed a mantle of national relevance.


Colour photograph of a woman standing against a turquoise tiled wall.Arlene Gehmacher, PhD, is Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings at the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) in Toronto, Ontario, where she develops collections-based research and exhibits. She also teaches; her course “Collecting Canada” deals with the acquisition, interpretation and display of the ROM’s picture collection and is offered through the Art History Department of the University of Toronto. Her publications cover the 19th to 21st centuries, and include articles on Ozias Leduc (1996), Cornelius Krieghoff (2003), Naoko Matsubara (2003, 2016), Paul Kane (2010, 2014), Arthur Heming (2013), and William Blair Bruce (1999, 2014).

Related resources

The watercolour paintings of Edith Fanny Kirk

Since the 1970s, there has been a continuous effort to acknowledge women artists in history. As part of this effort, the Galt Museum and Archives in Lethbridge, Alberta has curated an exhibition on artist Edith Fanny Kirk. The exhibition entitled, A Legacy of Adventure & Art: Miss Edith Fanny Kirk, focuses on her sense of adventure and distinguishes her artistic achievements and legacy. The exhibition will include four watercolours from the Library and Archives (LAC) collection, and will be on display from June 6 until October 12, 2015.

Kirk was born in England in 1858 and immigrated to Canada in 1905. She eventually settled in Lethbridge, Alberta, where her artistic influence as an art teacher was fundamental to the community. She also presented papers on art at the Mathesis Club of Lethbridge and has been credited with the development of the Lethbridge Sketch Club in the 1930s (now the Lethbridge Artists Club).

A colour reproduction of a watercolour depicting a landscape dominated by a light smoky sky. There is a river in the foreground with a green shore marking the boundary between sky and water.

Prairie in Weather Made Smoky from Forest Fires, Lethbridge (MIKAN 2948200)

The four watercolour paintings from the LAC collection included in the exhibition demonstrate Kirk’s adherence to the medium of watercolour—as opposed to the more traditional oil paint. Watercolours are ideal for rendering delicate tones and soft colour transitions, and this technique is especially apparent with the hazy atmospheric sky in Prairie in Weather Made Smoky from Forest Fires, Lethbridge where birds fly through a subtle cloud of smoke.

A colour reproduction of a watercolour landscape showing snow-capped mountains and green forested meadows.

Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper Park, Alberta (MIKAN 4626658)

Watercolours would have been a preferred medium for working outdoors as they were readily available, portable and compact. Kirk hiked backcountry trails and national parks to paint as a member of the Alpine Club of Canada, which she joined at age 60! Kirk’s painting of the now iconic Mount Edith Cavell, Jasper Park, Alberta demonstrates the expansiveness of Jasper National Park. We can see how the peaking mountains continue off the page so as to appear as if they infinitely continue, and the depth of the trees is rendered in purples, greens, and blues.

Kirk painted at a time when it was challenging for women to support themselves as artists due to social pressures and economic disparity. A Legacy of Adventure & Art: Miss Edith Fanny Kirk is an opportunity to look closely at her life and artwork, and to enrich our understanding of Canadian art history.

Be sure to visit the Galt Museum and Archives exhibition on Edith Kirk. You can also read more about women artists’ self-portraits in the recent blog post, Self-portraits by women artists in Library and Archives Canada’s collection.


Patrolling the French Shore with Louis Koenig

Newfoundland in the summer, completely inaccessible because of its winged garrison. Library and Archives Canada. (Source)

Did you know that thanks to the collection of Library and Archives Canada (LAC) it is possible to patrol the French Shore of the island of Newfoundland with Lieutenant Louis Koenig and discover this particular area where the French had cod fishing rights for almost 200 years, because of two treaties signed between France and England? Accompany Koenig and the crew of the French frigate La Clorinde during a campaign that brought them to Newfoundland, Cape Breton Island and Saint-Pierre and Miquelon in 1885.

Recognized by the French Navy for his artistic talents, Koenig created the 145 drawings and watercolours, the hand-drawn maps and the logbook, which are found in the Louis Koenig fonds and Louis Koenig Collection. The illustrations, most of which were done on site, show the landscapes and military installations he observed, as well as daily activities on board La Clorinde. The maps give three views of the French Shore and include notes by the artist.The logbook, also written by Koenig, documents the voyage, the places visited and gives his candid impressions of his experiences; devoting particular attention to the mosquitoes, which were apparently delighted to welcome the French sailors! The collection also includes a small sketchbook containing an illustrated, much more personal, account of the voyage, full of humour and whimsy presented by Koenig as a gift to La Clorinde’s commander, Félix-Auguste Le Clerc. Koenig also wrote an article Le « French Shore » (souvenirs de campagne à Terre-Neuve) (The “French Shore”, Memoirs of a Newfoundland Campaign), embellished with his maps and illustrations and published in 1890 in the periodical Tour du monde.

To order published documents that are unavailable online, use our online Request for Retrieval of Documents, or call 613-996-5115, or toll-free 1-866-578-7777, to consult them in person at 395 Wellington Street in Ottawa.

Enjoy the discoveries and view the Flickr set of images from Koenig’s albums!

Questions or comments? We would love to hear from you!