Aboriginal Art: Cornelius Krieghoff (1815-1872)
By: Rose Donovan


Cornelius Krieghoff travelled to the New World from Amsterdam with his brother in 1837 after failing to earn his way through Europe as an itinerant musician and draftsman. Prior to arriving, Krieghoff had no significant art training, only interests and aspirations. In Europe, he was encouraged to draw inspirations from nature, and realism with an emphasis on incidents and events of everyday life as suitable subjects for artists. He arrived in New York with hardly any money and a mandolin under his arm. It was here that he met Emilie Gautier, a young woman from Longueuil, Quebec. From there, Krieghoff travelled to Florida after being deployed to the Seminole Wars as a member of the United States Army. Not long after, he returned to Quebec for Louise and the birth of his son, at which point he became a deserter of the American army. During a period of transition when colonial ties were about to be severed and modern industry was gaining momentum, it was in Quebec that Cornelius Krieghoff recorded what would become a piece of Canadian history. He came to know the French-Canadian habitant way of life, painting and sketching scenes of his surroundings. Krieghoff is most known for his habitant scenes such as MerryMaking or Running the Toll, both of which are now located at the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.
Aside from the habitant collection, a considerable number of his sketches, paintings and portraits depicted Caughnawaga Iroquois Indians of Montreal. Krieghoff was fascinated by Native culture, particularly Native hunters on snowshoes. His fascination was heightened after Krieghoff moved to Quebec spending substantial time with friend John Budden visiting lakes in the hills accompanied by Huron guides. In places such as Laval, Lake Beauport and Lake Lagon, and the Jacques-Cartier River, they hunted alongside Huron, Micmac and Montagnais Natives while Krieghoff made quick sketches that he would later paint. At night, the pair camped on the shore of the Jacques-Cartier River and fished for salmon by torch-light. For this reason, many of his best pictures are inspiring records of wild life and hunting scenes. Other Native images Krieghoff painted were of hunters pulling toboggans, or tracking deer; or female Natives travelling to Montreal to the market with baskets or embroidered moccasins, wearing moccasins themselves with a child on their back.

Krieghoff began selling his amateur work after realizing that British officers at the Citadel along with other English travellers would buy his work as a souvenir. He made friends with many of these men including sons of wealthy lumber barons who were delighted to associate with him and buy his work. They sent his paintings home to England to show how red the maple trees became in autumn, although it is noted that initially many in England did not consider the paintings real, as they had never seen such contrasting colours on a canvas, nor had they seen autumn foliage such as the ones in the Quebec.
At the time of production, his work was seen by contemporaries as “vibrant and spiritly attuned to a zestful and buoyant country folk; that observed habitant life and customs with keen insight, in a kindly and sympathetic way”. At one point, the demand was so high that one patron eventually acquired enough to hang in rows over tanks of goldfish in his summer home. Krieghoff became so busy that he had little time to create original compositions based on fresh subject-matter, hence the repetition of similar scenes in paintings. Although there were some critics who thought his depictions of Natives reduced them to impotency and servility.
After his death, Krieghoff’s work experienced a period of opposition, particularly in his most preferred place more than any other in the world, Quebec. Critics such as M. Gerard Morisset questioned the aesthetic quality of his work and accused him of having slandered French-Canadian culture. Others though, such as A.Y. Jackson praised Krieghoff as a “leading pioneer painter of Canada, and a penetrating observer”. Marius Barbeau who has written several biographies on Krieghoff has suggested that he was not just an aesthetic painter, but a magnificent historian, of the pictorial kind. He suggests that Krieghoff should be seen as a skilful interpreter of a Canadian people, and the moods of its contrasting seasons and grand panoramas.
Today, historians appreciate Krieghoff’s depiction of mid-century life in French Canada particularly that of Natives as it captures an invaluable cultural and artistic record of Native American life that has vanished with most of the contemporary landmarks of the past. His collection of over seven-hundred images can be studied as traces in Canadian History.

When Krieghoff recorded the Native sketches that were later painted, he must of certainly first established friendships with them. One must consider if his sketches were always from first hand experience as it is astonishing to consider how long the Native subjects must have posed, patiently, while he sketched them, especially during a time period so fragile to Natives who would have had strong sentiments against white men in general.
Krieghoff used vials, pestles, blocks, paints and oils to depict the people that he observed. He often chose deep green to represent summer scenes, and grey blue for the winter ones. In his work, Natives are typically depicted on trails travelling, in their canoes, hunting, or seated with their family group around their bark “tipis”.
Today, his paintings of Aboriginal culture represent insight and compassion for a culture. They are mere observations of a people in their last hours of freedom and existence.

Barbeau, Marius. Cornelius Krieghoff: Canadian Art Series 1829 (Toronto: The Ryerson Press, 1948)

Barbeau, Marius. Cornelius Krieghoff: Pioneer Painter of North American (Toronto: The MacMillan Company of Canada Limited, 1934)

Barbeau, Marius. The Gallery of Canadian Art 1: Cornelius Krieghoff (Canada: McClelland and Stewart Ltd., 1962)

Catalogue des Musées d'état de Québec, Cornelius Krieghoff: 1815-1872 (Ottawa: Ministere des Affaires culturelles du Québec, 1971)

Harper, J. Russell. "Cornelius Krieghoff: The Habitant Farm" from Masterpieces in the National Gallery of Canada No. 9 (Ottawa: The National Gallery of Canada, 1977)

Jouvancourt, Hughes de. Cornelius Krieghoff (Toronto: Musson Book Company, 1971)

Reid, Dennis. Krieghoff: Images of Canada (Toronto: Art Gallery of Canada, 1999)