On a recent visit to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, Norman and I wandered into a room that was hung with paintings in the old-fashioned way, covering the walls, much as paintings were once hung at the Paris Salon, although less crowded and in a smaller space.
The painting facing the door caught my eye – as it was meant to do. A hunter struggling in the snow and a ghostly figure, its back turned to the fallen man, walking away. What was going on here?
Actually, there are several answers to that question. But first, I should explain the connection to Paris. You might think (as I did at first) that a painting by a Canadian artist on a Canadian subject, found in a Canadian museum, had spent its life in Canada. In fact, it was painted in France for a French audience.
The painter’s name was William Blair Bruce and he was born in Hamilton, Ontario, in 1859. After a few false starts in his career (he studied law, and worked as a draughtsman), his parents let him try his artistic ambitions abroad. In 1881, at the age of 22, he travelled to Paris.
We can follow his life there through his letters home, some of which were published in 1982. William was close to his family. His parents lived apart, so he wrote to them separately, and to a younger sister, Bell, of whom he was fond. His mother and grandmother supported him as best they could, and he tried hard to justify their investment and sacrifices.
His letters describe the costs of being an artist in Paris. Paying for canvas, for paints, for models, for framing. But there were creative revelations too:
I have discarded almost altogether that former bane of my existence, BLACK PAINT, and I now live in a dreamy dreamy world of colour to which I have always shut my eyes in trying to get the force of light and shade…but now I have joined the hopeful band who detest darkness and earnestly turn their thoughts and actions towards the light…
After a year of study at the Académie Julian, William moved to Barbizon, where he enthusiastically took up painting “en plein air.” In April 1882, he wrote, “I have almost forgotten how to paint inside of a house, it is such a long time since I have done so.”
He was determined to succeed in the Paris art world, which to him meant the Salon. He followed his own intuition and interests and spent some time obsessed with the challenges of painting scenes by moonlight. But he also wanted to understand what the Salon judges were looking for.
A painting called Une lisière de la forêt – matin was accepted by the Salon in 1882 (the current whereabouts of this painting are unknown and no photos seem to exist). For someone so newly arrived in Paris, this was quite a coup.
My picture was received at the Salon all right and very well placed, I am just about wild with delight, for so many of the boys were “bowled out,” that I had given up all hopes for myself and had become quite resigned to take a back seat, when I received the notice. Golly I am just about the proudest hairpin you ever beheld.
The first hurdle was getting accepted. The jury would look at hundreds of paintings a day, raising canes or umbrellas to indicate their acceptance of a particular artwork, as shown in the image below. An attendant wrote “A” on the back of paintings for “admis” and “R” for “refusé.” The accepted works were then ranked. A number one got you “on the line” – that is, roughly at eye-level. Number two meant just above and number three above that. If your painting was not numbered, it was “skyed” – hung high up where it would be hard to see and impossible to get close to.
When William went to see his own painting in the Salon, he was already full of plans for his next effort. He was also selling some small landscapes, since, as he pointed out,
It don’t pay to sell pictures with figures in them at such low prices for it costs so much for models. For my next Salon pictures (they will be two six-footers) I will have to bring a model or two in and that means quite an out[lay] of cash, but when a fellow goes medal hunting, he must lay out the coin, for it is bound to pay a very large interest in the end.
He had learned two things that impressed Salon judges: size (“two six-footers”) and human interest – that is, stories and sentiment.
William began a study of a peasant woman and a young child. As Lois Fink has written, “Neither artists nor viewers seemed to tire of the drudgery or pleasures of French peasantry. Convenient, accessible, accustomed to having artists track through their fields and even their homes, French peasants of the nineteenth century became the most popular of all subjects for French and American Salon painters.”*
He worked in a garden belonging to an old woman in Chailly, just north of Barbizon. He paid her 1½ francs a day as his model, and 75 centimes to the young girl. He expected to take two months to finish the painting and was economizing. “I smoke but two cigarettes a day now, and wear a shirt for three weeks in order to put everything into my picture, and very likely I will drop the cigarettes before long.”
Three months later, he was still hard at it and had changed the composition to show a group of children in the background. He called it Temps passé. In April 1884, he wrote home: “My picture is accepted, numbered, and favourably mentioned. I know no more.”
Once again, the painting was exhibited “just above the line,” and in a good light. But William feared having the painting seized, since he could not pay his debts. Exhibiting at the Salon was an honour, but unless the paintings found a buyer, they did not bring in money.
Over the course of 1884, his letters reveal a growing sense of despondency. “I am pretty well paralyzed. I have had to exist on promises during the last four or five months…I have everything ready to commence my work and I am also penniless and distracted by debts, can’t sell a scrap, simply shored.” He considered giving up painting altogether.
In 1885, he decided to return to Canada. He sailed home in the fall, but suffered a further setback shortly thereafter: the steamer Brooklyn, which was carrying dozens of paintings he planned to exhibit in Toronto, was wrecked off Anticosti Island in the Gulf of St. Lawrence in November 1885, and its cargo was lost. William suffered a nervous breakdown and spent a year recuperating at home.
He was back in Barbizon by late 1886, and in 1887 he moved to Giverny. (Did he meet Monet? If so, he never mentioned the fact.) That is where he began work on the Phantom Hunter. In October 1887, he asked his father to “hunt up an old snow shoeing costume and a pair of turned-up-toed snowshoes.” He spent Christmas 1887 in Sweden with the family of the woman he would later marry, Caroline Benedicks, a fellow artist. He was able to paint snow scenes in Sweden, but was still waiting for the snowshoes when he returned to Giverny in January 1888. He had six weeks before the Salon deadline.
On March 24, 1888, he wrote to his mother that his painting on a Canadian subject had been accepted by the Salon, and mentions that his inspiration had been a poem called “The Walker of the Snow” (see below for the poem). The hunter’s face is probably his own and the painting likely represents his own struggles and feelings of disorientation and despair.
That year seems to have been a turning point. The painting was a success and he married Caroline, whom he adored. She provided both emotional support and financial help (she came from a well-to-do family), and William gave up his all-consuming focus on the Salon. Eventually they moved to Sweden and settled in a house on the island of Gotland called Brucebo, where he painted marine landscapes and portraits (many of his wife), among other subjects.
William Blair Bruce died suddenly in 1906 in Stockholm, at the age of 47. His widow donated a group of his paintings to the City of Hamilton, and this donation led to the establishment of the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
He is largely forgotten today – he experimented with so many styles that he never became known for any particular type of painting. And his name is regrettably unmemorable. But one of his seascapes is in the Musée d’Orsay. Other works are in Canadian galleries, including the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. The Brucebo Foundation supports Canadian artists, and allows them to work in the house he loved, shown below.
Perhaps he should have been more careful about what he wished for. In his determination to succeed in the Salon, he painted pictures that were expensive to produce. And large crowd-pleasers are not necessarily what individual collectors choose to buy. How many others who were acclaimed at the Salon did the same and are also forgotten now?
Text by Philippa Campsie. Photograph of gallery room and Phantom Hunter from the Art Gallery of Hamilton; photographs of William Blair Bruce, Bruce and Caroline Benedicks, and Brucebo from Wikipedia; photograph of Temps passé from the art gallery of Mount Allison University; photograph of the Salon Jury from the Grand Palais website. The quotations are from Letters Home 1859–1906: The Letters of William Blair Bruce, edited by Joan Murray, Penumbra Press, 1982.
* Lois Marie Fink, American Art at the Nineteenth-Century Paris Salons, Cambridge University Press, 1990, p. 204. This work is quoted in “ ‘I Have Arrived’: Canadian Painters Journey to the Paris Salons” by Tobi Bruce, published in The French Connection: Canadian Painters at the Paris Salons 1880–1900, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 2011. The essay also describes the system of selection at the Salon.
The Walker of the Snow
Charles Dawson Shanly (1811–75)
Speed on, speed on, good master!
The camp lies far away;
We must cross the haunted valley
Before the close of day.
How the snow-blight came upon me
I will tell you as we go,—
The blight of the Shadow-hunter,
Who walks the midnight snow.
To the cold December heaven
Came the pale moon and the stars,
As the yellow sun was sinking
Behind the purple bars.
The snow was deeply drifted
Upon the ridges drear,
That lay for miles around me
And the camp for which we steer.
’Twas silent on the hillside,
And by the solemn wood
No sound of life or motion
To break the solitude,
Save the wailing of the moose-bird
With a plaintive note and low,
And the skating of the red leaf
Upon the frozen snow.
And said I,—“Though dark is falling,
And far the camp must be,
Yet my heart it would be lightsome,
If I had but company.”
And then I sang and shouted,
Keeping measure, as I sped,
To the harp-twang of the snow-shoe
As it sprang beneath my tread;
Nor far into the valley
Had I dipped upon my way,
When a dusky figure joined me,
In a capuchon of gray,
Bending upon the snow-shoes,
With a long and limber stride;
And I hailed the dusky stranger,
As we travelled side by side.
But no token of communion
Gave he by word or look,
And the fear-chill fell upon me
At the crossing of the brook.
For I saw by the sickly moonlight,
As I followed, bending low,
That the walking of the stranger
Left no footmarks on the snow.
Then the fear-chill gathered o’er me,
Like a shroud around me cast,
As I sank upon the snow-drift
Where the Shadow-hunter passed.
And the otter-trappers found me,
Before the break of day,
With my dark hair blanched and whitened
As the snow in which I lay.
But they spoke not as they raised me;
For they knew that in the night
I had seen the Shadow-hunter,
And had withered in his blight.
Sancta Maria speed us!
The sun is falling low,—
Before us lies the valley
Of the Walker of the Snow!
Bizarre tale but it makes me want to see the show. Cheers, Barney
Fascinating! I did not know that the height at which paintings were hung indicated their rankings once upon a time.
Oh, the horror of being “skyed”!
Oh, Philippa, what a magnificent, stirring post you’ve written! I was hanging on every word — especially after the ship full of his paintings sank — but was glad he at least found love, and prosperity. I shall keep my eyes peeled for his painting next time I’m at the Musée d’Orsay. Thank you!
I do not know if the painting is on display, or just in their collection and in some vault somewhere. If you do find it, please let me know.
Fantastic piece. When we gaze at a painting in a gallery and pass judgement, then move on, we dismiss any poverty and loss that were suffered in order for that painting to be completed, purchased and exhibited for our pleasure. Thanks for telling the story of William Blair Bruce.
How true. And people suffered to produce paintings and sculptures that are now forgotten, or to write books that have long since gone out of print and vanished. At least WBB’s work is still on display. That is something.
This story was very well told, Philippa. The draw of France, the desire for accomplishment and recognition, and the sometimes supportive, sometimes strained family ties – WBB is a sort of Everyman for me – almost invisible in the shadow of the greats of his time. I too will look for his work in the future, and will remember him.
If you are a Canadian, you will understand how desperate Canadians are for recognition in longer-established cultures (Europe) or those with a greater reach (the United States). WBB didn’t know that the influence of the Paris Salon was waning in the 1880s and that there were other ways to get one’s work in front of the public. The story is, to me, very sad, but it is a story that recurs as Canadian artists and writers try to establish themselves according to rules set by others.