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Editorial: Canadian Art and the Great War

Canadian painting in the 19th century tended towards the pastoral. It depicted idyllic scenes of rural life and represented the country as a wondrous Eden. Canadian painter Homer Watson, under the influence of such American masters as Frederic Edwin Church and Albert Bierstadt, created images that are serene and suffused with golden light. In On the Mohawk River (1878), for instance, a lazy river ambles between tall, overhanging trees; in the background is a light-struck mountain. In Watson’s world, nature is peaceful, unthreatening and perhaps even sacred.

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Group of Seven

The Group of Seven, also known as the Algonquin School, was a school of landscape painters. It was founded in 1920 as an organization of self-proclaimed modern artists and disbanded in 1933. The group presented the dense, northern boreal forest of the Canadian Shield as a transcendent, spiritual force. Their depictions of Canada’s rugged wind-swept forest panoramas were eventually equated with a romanticized notion of Canadian strength and independence. Their works were noted for their bright colours, tactile paint handling, and simple yet dynamic forms. In addition to Tom ThomsonDavid Milne and Emily Carr, the Group of Seven were the most important Canadian artists of the early 20th century. Their influence is seen in artists as diverse as abstract painter Jack Bush, the Painters Eleven, and Scottish painter Peter Doig.

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Documenting the First World War

The First World War forever changed Canada. Some 630,000 Canadians enlisted from a nation of not yet eight million. More than 66,000 were killed. As the casualties mounted on the Western Front, an expatriate Canadian, Sir Max Aitken (Lord Beaverbrook), organized a program to document Canada’s war effort through art, photography and film. This collection of war art, made both in an official capacity and by soldiers themselves, was another method of forging a legacy of Canada’s war effort.

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Representing the Home Front: The Women of the Canadian War Memorials Fund

While they may not have had access to the battlefields, a number of Canadian women artists made their mark on the visual culture of the First World War by representing the home front. First among these were the women affiliated with the Canadian War Memorials Fund, Canada’s first official war art program. Founded in 1916, the stated goal of the Fund was to provide “suitable Memorials in the form of Tablets, Oil-Paintings, etc. […], to the Canadian Heroes and Heroines in the War.” Expatriates Florence Carlyle and Caroline Armington participated in the program while overseas. Artists Henrietta Mabel May, Dorothy StevensFrances Loringand Florence Wyle were commissioned by the Fund to visually document the war effort in Canada.

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Canadian Tulip Festival

The Canadian Tulip Festival takes place in and around Ottawa every spring. It is one of the world’s largest tulip displays. During the festival, over a million tulips in over 100 varieties are in bloom in the National Capital Region. The festival’s origins lie in Canada’s role in both liberating the Netherlands and hosting members of the Dutch royal family during the Second World War. After the war, the Netherlands began presenting Canada with tulip bulbs in gratitude. This tradition continues to this day. The inaugural festival was held in 1953. (See also Liberation of the Netherlands.)

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1972 Canada-Soviet Hockey Series (Summit Series)

For many Canadians, the eight-game series between Team Canada and the national team of the Soviet Union in 1972 provided the greatest moment in the country’s sporting history. Most expected that Canada would handily defeat the Soviet Union, but this confidence quickly disappeared when Canada lost the first game. The series was tied heading into the final game in Moscow, which ended in a dramatic fashion, with Paul Henderson scoring in the final seconds to give Canada the victory. The series would have a lasting impact on hockey in Canada and abroad.

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Canadian War Art Programs

Since the First World War, there have been four major initiatives to allow Canadian artists to document Canadian Armed Forcesat war. Canada’s first official war art program, the Canadian War Memorials Fund (1916–19), was one of the first government-sponsored programs of its kind. It was followed by the Canadian War Art Program (1943–46) during the Second World War. The Canadian Armed Forces Civilian Artists Program (1968–95) and the Canadian Forces Artists Program (2001–present) were established to send civilian artists to combat and peacekeepingzones. Notable Canadian war artists have included A.Y. Jackson, F.H. Varley, Lawren Harris, Alex Colville and Molly Lamb Bobak.

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Documenting the Second World War

When Canada declared war on Germany on 10 September 1939, tens of thousands of Canadians enlisted to serve in the armynavyair force and supporting services. The military scrambled to buy equipment, train recruits and prepare for war. Little thought was given, at first, to documenting the war effort. By 1940, however, the military was recruiting historians, most notably Charles Stacey, to collect records and write accounts of Canadian operations. In the following years, artists, photographers and filmmakers also served with the various branches of the armed forces. Today, their diligent work provides a rich visual and written catalogue of Canada’s history in the Second World War.

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