BEAVERBROOK: Krieghoff’s frolicking boozers

Cornelius Krieghoff, Merrymaking (1860), Oil on canvas, 88.9 x 121.9 cm, The Beaverbrook Art Gallery / The Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation (in dispute, 2004)

Cathy Dobson

Editor’s Note: The doors opened last week at the Judith and Norman Alix Art Gallery on an exhibition billed as the most important art event in Sarnia’s history, the only Ontario stop of the internationally-acclaimed Masterworks of the Beaverbrook Art Gallery. This is the fifth in a series of articles.

Of the 600 to 700 paintings produced by Cornelius Krieghoff, one of the largest and most popular is a lively party scene called Merrymaking, which is now on display in Sarnia.

“Krieghoff’s romantic view of early Canadian history is very popular. People love the landscapes he painted with the people, the cottages, the trees, the horses and the snow,” says JNAAG assistant curator Darryn Doull.

“For most Canadians, they bring comfort and familiarity.  This is a favourite.”

Merrymaking evokes such warm nostalgia for life in wintery Canada it’s often reproduced as an example of Canadiana. In fact, Lambton County is considering its use for this year’s annual Christmas card.

Krieghoff’s life is largely cloaked in mystery. We know he was born in 1815 in Amsterdam to parents of German and Dutch descent. His father was his first painting instructor, and later Krieghoff appears to have travelled widely and studied art in Germany.

He moved to America as a young man and enlisted in the U.S. army. It’s believed he produced as many as 200 small sketches while serving in the Second Seminole War in Florida, although not a single one exists today.

Later, he went to New York City where he met his French Canadian wife, Louise Gauthier.  They moved to Toronto, then to Montreal and later to Quebec City around 1853.

Krieghoff painted throughout his years in Canada but had very little success in Toronto and Montreal. There are stories of him going door-to-door to sell his paintings for next to nothing.

The couple had a little girl but Louise either disappeared or died when they reached Quebec City.

That’s when Krieghoff began producing important works that gained great popularity for their depiction of Habitant and native life.  Initially few wanted to purchase paintings that reflected their daily lives, but eventually British officers began buying Krieghoffs to document their time in pre-Confederation Canada.

Krieghoff also developed a reputation for painting with good humour, becoming famous for rollicking party scenes like Merrymaking.

“I’m not a Krieghoff expert but he captured the spirit and the energy of the places and the people he painted,” said Doull.

His work tended to be composites of activities and buildings drawn together to depict the life of French Canadian settlers.

Merrymaking is set at an inn, believed to be the Gendron tavern near Quebec City. It appears the 50 or so men and women spilling out of the two-storey stone building have had a night of drinking.

“They are definitely having a good time. Some are holding their drinks. One poor soul is holding his head,” said Doull.

Merrymaking was produced in 1860 at the height of Krieghoff’s very successful career.

Lord Beaverbrook purchased it for his collection in 1957 for $25,000. At the time, that was believed to be the most paid for any Canadian painting.

Entry tickets to the Beaverbrook exhibition are free of charge, however patrons are asked to book a date and timeslot by visiting www.masterworksatjnaag.ca. Tickets to an associated lecture series can also be purchased online.