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War Art Masterpieces on Display at the McCord Museum

Historic exhibition produced by the Canadian War Museum and Canadian Museum of Civilization includes works by some of Canada's best-known artists

Montreal, Monday, November 10, 2003 — An exhibition featuring works by renowned Canadian artists and depicting the important contribution made by Canadians in both World Wars, opens today at the McCord Museum. Canvas of War — Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum is the most significant exhibition ever mounted from the Canadian War Museum's extensive but little-known war art collection. The exhibition will be on display at the McCord Museum until January 25, 2004. 

More than sixty works are showcased in the landmark exhibition, including paintings by Alex Colville, Charles Comfort, Molly Lamb Bobak and four members of the Group of Seven. Many of the paintings have not been exhibited in eighty years; and others have never been publicly displayed. From an image of jubilant Armistice Day celebrations to a stark depiction of a drowning sailor, these compelling works are powerful testimony to the Canadian war experience.

The origins of Canada's war art collections can be traced to the leadership of Lord Beaverbrook, a Canadian-born entrepreneur, newspaper magnate and later British cabinet minister. During the First World War he established the Canadian War Memorials Fund, through which many prestigious artists depicted Canada's contribution to the war effort overseas and at home. However, his plan for a new building to ensure the permanent display of nearly a thousand paintings never came to fruition, and the collection was turned over to the National Gallery of Canada.

The Canadian War Memorials Fund led to the founding of the Canadian War Records program during the Second World War. Thirty-one painters were hired to depict the activities of Canada's army, navy and air force. They depicted wartime Canada and the nation's military achievements in Italy and Northwest Europe.

In 1946, over five thousand works of art from this program were deposited with the National Gallery of Canada, joining the First World War paintings. In 1971, both war art collections were transferred to the Canadian War Museum. Since then, only a few works have been publicly displayed because the Canadian War Museum has no permanent art gallery. The restoration and exhibition of the works in Canvas of War constitute the most resources devoted to Canada's war art collection since the works were created.

The Canadian War Museum's war art collection consists of over 13,000 works, including paintings, watercolours, drawings, prints and sculptures. It encompasses both the Canadian War Memorials of the First World War and the Canadian War Records of the Second World War. The Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program Collection, which focuses on peacekeeping by Canadian Forces, completes the collection.

Canvas of War — Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum will be on display at the McCord Museum (690, Sherbrooke Street West, Montreal) until January 25, 2004. The McCord is offering a full gamut of cultural activities and school programs on conjunction with Canvas of War.

The Group of Seven
The Great War and the Canadian Landscape

The Group of Seven is the best-known and most influential group of Canadian artists to have worked in Canada in the twentieth century. Original members F.H. Varley, A.Y. Jackson, Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, J.E.H. MacDonald, Arthur Lismer and Frank H. (Franz) Johnston first exhibited as a Group in 1920. LeMoine FitzGerald, Edwin Holgate and A.J. Casson later augmented the Group's membership. The Group ceased exhibiting in 1931.

The First World War experiences of the original Group of Seven influenced the development of their painting styles. While the Group's post-war landscape art is very well known, their war art is not. As a result, the extent to which much of their painting after 1920, in particular their use of dead trees and devastated ground, is indebted to the landscape of the Great War is not widely appreciated. As more and more of their war art becomes available for viewing, whether through exhibition or, as is now possible, on the Internet, it will become clear that, much like the impact of the conflict on the nation itself, Canada's art, too, was forged in the crucible of war.

Women at War and as War Artists

For the most part, women artists were hired to paint women's work, but during the First World War, the work itself evolved as thousands of women performed tasks usually dominated by men. Mabel May's stunning portrayal of women workers filling shells in a munitions factory illustrates the impact of the war on gender in the workplace, as women assumed new responsibilities in support of the war effort.  The extent to which women replaced the men who had gone to fight is also illustrated by Manly MacDonald's lyrical painting, Land Girls Hoeing.

Three women's services were created during the Second World War: the Canadian Women's Army Corps, the Women's Royal Canadian Naval Service and the Royal Canadian Air Force (Women's Division). Service women and civilians worked in new occupations, such as aircraft construction, and more traditional areas, such as clerical work.

Molly Lamb was the only woman appointed an official war artist. She depicted the work of the Canadian Women's Army Corps overseas in 1945.  Commissioned by the National Gallery of Canada, Pegi Nicol MacLeod portrayed women from all three women's services at work in Ottawa in 1944 and 1945.

The Quebec Connection

Artists who were born or lived in Quebec are of critical importance to the art on view in the exhibition Canvas of War — Masterpieces from the Canadian War Museum. Of the more than sixty works in the exhibition, twenty are by artists closely associated with the province. Excluding seventeen works by foreign artists, approximately 40 percent of the remaining Canadian works are by Quebec painters. In fact, this exhibition supports the thesis that Quebec's early twentieth-century art community played a key role in the development of Canadian art.  

First World War artists A.Y. Jackson, Maurice Cullen, Richard Jack, Arthur Lismer and Mabel May established their careers in Quebec. Although they were not all trained there, they went on to influence generations of artists in the province and in Canada. Second World War artists in the exhibition who lived and worked extensively in Quebec include Harold Beament, Albert Cloutier, Edwin Holgate, T. R. MacDonald, Pegi Nicol Macleod, Jack Nichols, Will Ogilvie, Moe Reinblatt and Campbell Tinning.

Quebec Subjects

Belgian artist Alfred Bastien was attached to the 22nd Battalion, the famed "Van Doos," during the First World War.  Of the three works by him in the exhibition, the most celebrated is Over the Top, Neuville-Vitasse. Future Governor General Georges Vanier maintained that he was the soldier holding the pistol in the front of the painting. The "Van Doos" also fought at the Battle of Courcelette (1916), Ortona (1943), Campobasso (1944) and Carpiquet (1944).  The Three Rivers Regiment was at Ortona (1944), the Sherbrooke Fusiliers Regiment was at Falaise (1944) and Carpiquet (1944), and La Régiment de la Chaudière fought at Falaise (1944). These events are all depicted in the exhibition.

The paintings also show how people in Quebec contributed to both war efforts. The women filling shells in Mabel May's composition are from Montreal. Victoria Cross winner O'Kill Learmonth, who also appears on the invitation card, was born and lived in Quebec City, while Native Canadian Lloyd George Moore was a member of the Three Rivers Regiment.

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Nike Langevin
Head of Communications
McCord Museum of Canadian History
Telephone : (514) 398-7100, ext. 251

This travelling exhibition is produced by the Canadian War Museum and the Canadian Museum of Civilization.