James D. Duncan

Duncan is best known as a painter in watercolour. His many works in this medium are landscapes and street scenes which record every aspect of city life. In Montréal he sketched sporting events, parades, fires, market vendors, sleighing and ice-cutting.


James D. Duncan

 James D. Duncan, artist and drawing master (b at Coleraine, Ireland 1806, d at Montréal Sept 1881). He emigrated to Canada about 1830, and established himself in Montréal as a professional artist and teacher of drawing.

Duncan is best known as a painter in watercolour. His many works in this medium are landscapes and street scenes which record every aspect of city life. In Montréal he sketched sporting events, parades, fires, market vendors, sleighing and ice-cutting. He also portrayed most of the city's important buildings. Through his brushwork and his use of a subtle range of colours, he captured atmospheric and textural effects. His on-the-spot sketches of figures and groups in action show him to have been an accomplished draftsman. Less frequently, he painted small watercolour portraits.

The few oil paintings attributed to Duncan vary in style and lack the fluidity and fine colour sense seen in his watercolours. Between 1839 and 1878, over 70 of Duncan's compositions were printed as etchings, lithographs or wood engravings. His views were used to illustrate Hochelaga Devicta: The Early History and Present State of the City and Island of Montréal (1839) and to decorate the borders of a Montréal map (1846). The most notable set of single-sheet prints are 6 Montréal views drawn on stone by Duncan and issued in 1843-44. They were the first tint-stone lithographs published in Canada. Duncan also created designs for coinage and for ornamental printing.

Duncan taught drawing at several Montréal schools and gave private lessons. Some pupils copied his works. In 1837 he served as a 1st lieutenant in the Montréal Light Infantry. He was a founding member of the Montreal Society of Artists in 1847 (seeARTISTS' ORGANIZATIONS), exhibited at the Québec Provincial Exhibition, Montréal, 1863-65, at the Art Association of Montreal, 1865-79, the Society of Canadian Artists, 1867-72, and became an Associate of the ROYAL CANADIAN ACADEMY OF ARTS in 1881.


Further Reading

  • Mary Allodi, Canadian Watercolours and Drawings in the Royal Ontario Museum (1974) and Printmaking in Canada, The Earliest Views and Portraits (1980); Jon Caulfield, "Three Preconfederation Painters of the Canadian City, Part II, James Duncan," Urban History Review, vol xvi, no. 2 (1987).