The "Fab Five" All-time Best Painters of Canadian Heritage Art

Artists Page 1a

Best Canadian Painters


Art Humour - Spot the Yoke

Would you know how to paint a yoke as well as JD Kelly did in one of his most popular paintings? Why bother says Riopelle?

He's got a point.

Wouldn't it have been a whole lot easier to just join the Group of Seven, get a stool and sit in front of a hill and paint for a few hours, than stress yourself out for weeks and months at a time with the endless research workload - which commonly burdened the Fab Five - and read yourself silly on musty old books and talk to boring old timers?

And then having to cross check everything so no one could find fault with the shape of the yoke.

Playing a Yoke on the Viewer...

Fearing such criticism, Canadian painter Riopelle (Jean Paul Riopelle, 1923-2002) saw the light early on; "Pas de recherche pour moi," apparently he was heard to mutter one day.

Thereafter he was determined that no one would accuse him, ever again, of painting the yoke wrong!

The yoke, as his paintings (example above) made clear, was on them!

Can you tell if he got the yoke right?

We apologize for playing a yoke on you. We didn't show his whole canvas, only a small part of it. Can you tell which part is missing? The left side, or right? The bottom or the top?

Perhaps you can't see the yoke because it is in one of the missing sections...

Such a kidder... Riopelle.

Top Artists for a Nation

No artists, in Canadian history, have had the impact on the national psyche to compare with that of these fabulous top five painters of Canada's past.

In the opening decades of the 20th century an entire nation stood on their shoulders and absorbed the story of Canada and Canadians through their eyes and their intelligence.

They were different from most other "artists" in that they could "think" as well as "feel."

Not content to be mere landscape artists - you know, rocks, trees, houses, hills, wind and waves, like the Group of Seven - they thought Canada was more than that. Always more, than that.

To them Canada was far more than merely the setting...

Far from being escapist artists, who fled as far from people as they could get, to commune with nature, and plaster their palettes with sometimes attractive gobs representing rocks and trees, the Fab Five revelled in the accomplishments of the people of Canada.

To them, quite properly, the purpose of Canada's national art was inconceivable if it excluded the people of the country and how they transformed it to make it the envious beacon for hundreds of thousands of immigrants during the 19th and 20th century.

Countless European immigrants wanted into the country these artists portrayed.

And far from painting endless, and mindless, untitled panels of boring corporate decorator art - you know, like Riopelle - they stretched beyond that, to expand their eyes with their intelligence to create art for the thinking - as opposed to the merely consuming and preening - classes.

Their artistic creations inspired generations of adults, and yes, young people, to think positively about their country and their fellow citizens, not only through calendars, prints, and advertising, but through novels, picture and history books and school texts. The story of Canada and Canadians they portrayed seeped into the bone marrow of millions of Canadians from the 1890s to the 1950s.

Their art urged Canadians to think... to do better, to be better...

And no Group of Seven or Riopelle canvas can ever claim to have done that...

It is no accident, at all, that their talent, and their work, flowered during the era - the early 20th century - that Canada's greatest Prime Minister, Sir Wilfrid Laurier, said would be Canada's century.

As much as reflecting Canada's "Finest Hour," they were instrumental in creating it in the the mind's eye, the psyche of the nation. And for hundreds of years to come...

Artists and Intellectuals - It is no accident that all these men were not habitu├ęs of the salons of the rich, flatulating the air with abstruse twaddle about this or that school of art philosophy, but were, in fact, formidably knowledgeable about the people, places, and events of Canadian history to a level that could rival that of university professors.

Unlike the Group of Seven, or Riopelle, who only needed a pot or two of paint and an isolated place to ruminate on a stool, the Fab Five would not - could not - put paint to canvas until they had done exhaustive, scholarly research into the history of the customs, the dress, the uniforms and weapons, the equipment, the methods of transportation that Canadians had used in the first 350 years.

And unlike the Group, it was, in fact, the nature of their heritage art that they spent - they had to - far more time researching the story they chose to illustrate on paper than in painting it.

For Fab Five artists researching the history of Canada, and the vast array of heritage cultural artifacts that were used to transform it, was a passionate, parallel pursuit to painting that they followed their entire lives.

A CW Jefferys painting, say of Governor Simcoe Building Fort York in 1793, was the culmination of weeks, no months, sometimes years, of historical research and artistic planning.

It is an artistic masterpiece, with every area of the canvas telling a different part of the story that made up the whole.

It is also an intellectual tour-de-force.

(Simcoe chose the fort site for his colonial capital, which was to become the founding location of Toronto, Canada's largest and most important city. The fort still stands, surrounded by looming expressways and hundreds of acres of landfill and highrises on the water side, and overwhelmed, literally, with clouds of gas fumes and the awful din from millions of motorcars and trucks that pass by overhead.)

In fact CW has created a story here, of the scholarly accurate construction of an 18th century blockhouse from start to finish, that would take a television documentarian multiple sequences to illustrate.

CW's artistry, skill, and intelligence, created it all in only one superlative frame:

- supplies from England being rowed ashore
- unloading the provisions on the dock
- the sentry with bayonet guarding against US attack
- the construction logs towed in beside the dock
- the ox team pulling them up to the sawyers
- two men sawing logs into usable timbers, and boards
- a man with an adze squaring the beams
- workmen handing boards up to the roofing team
- workmen hammering pegs to hold the beams
- ramp log in the foreground to slide up the beams
- Governor Simcoe's tent in the background
- Governor Simcoe himself directing the work

The work is simply CW at his best, as an artist, and an intellectual.

(Try examining the different areas of a Riopelle canvas for parallel intellectual content, and see what story it tells... Don't be put off by the fact that he calls it "Untitled." Maybe you can come up with something meaningful - beyond decoration - when he couldn't.)

CW had to spend months researching the uniforms, the colours, the tools, the construction sequence, etc., because all the Fab Five were absolute sticklers for being historically accurate before putting paint to palette.

After all, CW and his other Fab Five colleagues were representational artists, determined to artistically illustrate a historical truth for a nation. They were not merely idle, self-indulgent dabblers in paint.

AY Doodles - Compare CW's masterpiece with the countless sketches dashed off by AY Jackson, after only a few moments of thought and an hour or two on location, which show up by fives and sixes, with boring regularity, every year at every "fine art" auction held across Canada.

There are hundreds of his little panels, if not thousands. It wreaks havoc with quality.

They are as ubiquitous as wallpaper, and the works are invariably merely doodling, with little, or less, artistic merit.

But then AY never intended these to be sold as good art. They were only his personal sketch pads that he hoped, one day, to make real art from at home, but mostly never did.

It is art sales hucksters, to make a buck from the unwary, unknowing, and idle rich - often the same thing - not AY himself, who promoted these little panels of paint splotches as real art instead of what they really are, AY's mock-ups and memory pads for later.

Almost none of them are AY at his best. But they do have his autograph, which is presumably why they sell to the rich, who routinely are inveigled into buying poor art for lots of money.

Creative Genius - Fab Five artists were truly creative artistic geniuses. They literally started with a blank page. Then they had to intellectualize what subject they would paint, and what elements they would pictorialize, and what mood they would give the work.

A superlative example is JD Kelly's Moonlight Magic.

Unlike Group of Seven artists, who famously sought out a hill, or tree, or lake to set up a stool beside, and then copied what they saw, as best as they could with the limited time available. The scene, the elements, the buildings, even the season, the lighting, the mood, the weather, were all there to be copied.

Hell, it was why they went there, to copy. Otherwise they could have stayed home and dreamed it up, invent it. But they didn't want to do that. They wanted to illustrate what was out there; faithfully copy the reality they saw out there.

Compared to the Fab Five, who had to create it all, not nearly as much inventive genius is needed to transfer an in-your-face scene in front of you, to paper.

So, in spite of what you hear, so often, from the so-called art reviewers, it was the Group of Seven who were the illustrators and copyists, not the Fab Five, who were the real, entirely creative, artistic geniuses. If anyone has the right to be called "artist," for painting creatively, it is they. With the Group types somewhere behind, on their stools, furiously copying another landscape...

It is an unending source of amazement to us, why the Canadian popes of art reviews, are journalists with no artistic success whatsoever, of their own - or they (Sarah Milroy, Christopher Hume, Murray Whyte) would be producing art for sale, instead of merely columns of bad wind - more commonly called farts. They have also targetted two other top Canadian artists: Robert Bateman and Ken Danby as being "unartistic." None of these artists, or intelligent readers, take any of their art criticism seriously, the foul odour coming only from columnists whose chief creative accomplishment in life is farting...

Published Artists - It is no accident that members of the Fab Five also produced books that are landmarks of book publishing. Through them, their paintings burrowed into Canadian homes, and minds, as well as those of people overseas.

Both Jefferys and Heming were major acclaimed and published authors. (There were none, among the Group of Seven; they were "feelers" not thinkers - beyond what painting style they would use on their palettes.)

Arthur Heming's books, full of his fabulous paintings, publicized Canada, Canada's northland, and Canada's native people, around the world.

CW Jefferys' Picture Gallery of Canadian History, full of thousands of his best artistic images, has never been surpassed as the finest pictorial representation ever, of the people, places, events, and cultural artifacts of Canada and Canadians.

It is an intellectual and artistic masterpiece, which has no parallel in the creative opus of any other Group or Modernist painter.

And both Art Hider and JD Kelly were also worthy rivals for the title of Canada's most published artist.

Fab Five painters, during their most productive period were Canada's most successfully published artists. Their paintings famously graced calendars, advertising, and the leading books of the period. They were successful at getting their art seen, during their lifetimes, in a way that the Group of Seven could only look on with envy.

Proverbial Starving Artists - During the same period that the Fab Five art flourished, no one wanted to see any Group of Seven paintings. Group members all had to have day jobs to survive; they couldn't make a living from selling their landscape art or get it published.

(We can well recall hearing AY - in 1973 - loudly grousing about how unfair it all was, that no one wanted to pay for their art while they were alive; that now that they were all dead - except him - others were getting rich by promoting their art when it was too late for them all. It was a sad lament for a starving Group of Seven artist.)

It underlines again, that the Fab Five were not, like many artists, mere absinthe-fuelled dilettantes, self-indulgently painting in a drug or alcohol induced haze, while groping to find their unique form of expression in the world of art.

Or, like the Group of Seven, waiting in vain for the world to discover their "genius," until they were long dead...

The Fab Five were just not content with the haphazard spurts and splotches of oil mindlessly dabbed on countless "untitled" canvases by legions of starving modernist painters, vainly waiting for the call, that never comes.

They had a national purpose and that was to paint the people, places, and events of Canada for Canadians. Could there ever be a better purpose for an artist?

Like no other artists, they documented with consummate and intelligent artistry, the Canadian experience in the mind's eye of the nation.

And neither the Group of Seven or Riopelle can claim to have ever done that...

But then it is not their fault that they never tried to do that - except when they were paid to, during the war - choosing instead do follow the "decorator" school of Canadian illustration art. And following a particularly unpopular mode of artistic expression as well.

An artist whose art is not seen or appreciated, is a failure. (Which is why so many drink or smoke themselves to death prematurely, or die in poverty.)

By that standard the Group of Seven were failures in their own lifetimes.

People did not like their art; publishers did not like their work. So their own generation never saw their paintings. Luckily they had friends who bought. And benefactors who paid their bills.

During the very same period that the Fab Five were hugely successful at getting millions to view their art, in prints for sale, and in books.

No wonder AY was so crabby in his old age...

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Construction of the Dundas Street Bridge, Toronto, 1910 - Owen Staples
Orig. oil on canvas - Size - 79 cm x 1.34 m
Found - Toronto, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

A letter which CW sent to a friend, along with a signed presentation copy of volume 1, shows exactly the secret of his success as an artist to get his work seen, appreciated, and published.

Exactly what every artist would like.

But most take the wrong approach and so the phrase "poor starving artist" has entered the English language.

CW, far from posing as a self-preoccupied artist type, who insists on shoving his or her particular vision of art down people's throats, is solicitous of people.

"I shall hope to see you and possibly tap you for some local knowledge. My job is only possible by picking everybody's brains."

He wanted to reference his art to the local experience, to fulfil a need as he saw it, not to force his "vision" on others.

Above all this immigrant wanted to make his art relevant to the people of Canada.

Rooted in the Canadian Experience.

Could there be a loftier goal for an artist?

Or a finer achievement?

Oh yeah! Sorry! Forgot!

Making lots of money...

Oh, and being lionized by the preening nouveau riche...

CW was writing to Dr. Hugh Charles Templin (1896-1970), son of the long-time editor of the Fergus News Record and creator of the rock gardens that are still a big tourist attraction downtown.

Hugh was also an author, having written a history book on Fergus in 1933. So he was intimately familiar with the history of Wellington County and is why CW was seeking him out.

The trio of CW's autographed books once belonged to Hugh. The letter from CW is glued inside volume 1, and was obviously a cherished personal memento of a Great Canadian Artist and Writer, as long as he lived.

Letter, CW Jefferys - 1945
Orig. letter - Image Size - 14 x 21 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Picture Gallery of Canadian History - CW Jefferys 1943, 1945, 1950 editions, autographed presentations
Orig. books - Size - 15 x 20 cm
Found - Toronto, ON

The familiar green and yellow boards and the fascinating interior full of thousands of CW's fabulous pen and ink drawings, so beloved by millions of Canadians who were exposed to them during their student days in the decades after World War II.

Left Hans, a 9 year old Swiss immigrant, was among many who spent countless hours in the early 1950s, leafing through these books, utterly enthralled with the nuggets of information about Canada he found there.

Inspired by CW and the members of the Fab Five, in later years he would make numerous Canadian heritage film and television documentaries on the people, places, and events of Canadian history.

His Canada-specific programs would be honoured with 136 international film and television awards, including
41 Platinum, Gold, & Silver medals.

It is a record of excellence unmatched by any other Canadian documentary maker.

He would create numerous heritage web sites including:

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Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Moonlight Magic - JD Kelly c 1926
Orig. oil on canvas - Image Size - 61 x 71 cm
Found - Toronto, ON

A Kinder, Gentler America... Called Canada...

Thanks to the superb artistry of the Fab Five.

Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Simcoe Building Fort York 1793 - CW Jefferys
Orig. wc - Size - 30 x 40 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

York Boat Shooting the Rapids - Arthur Heming
Orig. oil - Size - 50 x 70 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
Great Canadian Heritage Treasure

Po nis cha pan ne ka pe Hunts Buffalo - Art Hider
Orig. chromolithograph - Size - 36 x 42 cm
Found - Toronto, ON
CW Jefferys 1869-1951
Art Hider 1870-1952
JD Kelly 1862-1958
Owen Staples 1866-1949
Arthur Heming 1870-1940
Go to CW
Go to Art
Go to JD
Go to Owen
Go to Arthur

"Like no other artists, they instilled with consummate, passionate, and intelligent artistry
the Canadian experience in the mind's eye of the nation.
Copyright Goldi Productions Ltd. - 1996, 1999, 2005