Hello! My name is Jordan Hanas, and I am a fifth year Art History & Museum Studies student doing an internship with the University of Lethbridge Art Gallery collections team. This blog post is my first written project with the gallery and explores the Canadian artist Lucius R O'Brien, as well as his importance to Canadian art and art history. I hope you enjoy!
Lucius R O’Brien was a Canadian landscape painter who began his self-taught painting career in 1872 at the age 40, after first training as a civil engineer. Lucius O’Brien was painting during the very early foundation of Canada as a country, and focused on capturing the relationship between himself as an exploring artist and the landscape of the newly founded nation he called home. His paintings often featured large, vertical land masses and whimsical representations of light.
Lucius R. Obrien, Photography: M.O. Hammond Collection, National Gallery of Canada Archives
I personally think that that O’Brien was able to stunningly capture the beauty and breathtaking scenery of Canadian landscapes in a luminous, delicate, and sensitive way which deserves to be preserved, cherished, and celebrated still today. His painting Giant Cedar, Glade in a British Columbia Forest from 1888 is very well loved at the gallery for this exact reason!
It is a watercolour on paper, painted in 1888. The painting depicts trunks of trees that are so big that the composition can’t contain them, they stretch far beyond the composition, their trunks filling the centre of the painting. Giant ferns are in the foreground and just beyond them are two tiny figures, one with an axe over his shoulder. It’s an example of “the sublime nature of landscape, humans rendered insignificant by overpowering nature yet poised to conquer”, as art historian Terry Fenton wrote about this piece, describing this work but also many artworks of western Canada that were painted around this time to evoke this exact meaning.
Giant Cedar, Glade in a British Columbia Forest, 1888, Lucius R O'Brien.
From the University of Lethbridge art collection, purchased 1988 with funds provided by the Alberta Advanced Education Endowment and Incentive Fund.
O’Brien’s paint handling and representations of light suggest that he was familiar with the work of the American Luminist School, which was a movement interested in the interaction of light and landscape. The American Luminist School explored this interaction of light and landscape through a realist approach to painting. This luminous quality can be witnessed in the image Giant Cedar, Glade in a British Columbia Forest from 1888, as the lighting seems to dance through the foliage of the forest to illuminate the image. O’Brien’s imagery and style is also suggestive of the Hudson River School, another American movement which focused on extremely picturesque landscape paintings which intended to evoke feelings of nostalgia and wonder in the face of nature.
This connection to American art movements places O’Brien’s work within the context of a developing Canada, and offers a space to consider the importance of his paintings in promoting the value of Canadian land and landscapes to the countrymen who were settling in Canada from Europe and abroad. It was through this lens of promoting the beauty of the new nation that O’Brien traveled throughout and around Canada documenting his interactions with the diverse landscapes of the country and capturing the delicate beauty and tranquil nature of the spaces.
In 1882 and 1886 O’Brien visited the Canadian Rockies to document the magnificence of locations such as Mountain Lake, Kakabeka Falls, and Kaministiquia River. In 1888 O’Brien visited the coast of British Columbia where he recorded images of the lush foliage and vegetation in a sensitive and enchanting manner, such as in his paintings from British Columbia forests and Vancouver’s Stanley Park.