John Beatty had a boisterous start in life. Born in Toronto in 1869, he was expelled from school at age 13 and by 16, itching for adventure, was enlisted and served as a bugle boy in the Northwest Rebellion of 1885. Following the surrender of Louis Riel, Beatty returned home and worked at an assortment of jobs until he was 18, at which time—against his parents’ wishes—he joined the Toronto Fire Department. It was a good fit for the lively, outspoken young man. Indeed, up until the time of his death in 1941, he was known as the fireman turned artist.
After serving 11 years as a fireman, Beatty left to study art at the Académie Julien in Paris, France. He never looked back.
Upon his return to Canada he was determined to shake off the European styles. He believed Canada’s rugged wilderness was subject enough for a lifetime of canvases, and he lived that truth as did many of the artists who followed him. Beatty ignored the well-groomed gardens and streetscapes of Ontario, packed up his brushes and paddles and headed to Ontario’s northland. Arguably his work was the catalyst that would culminate in The Group of Seven. Artists from that group went on early sketching trips with him, sought his advice and would remain lifelong friends.
Beatty was 45 at the outbreak of the First World War. He served on a joint committee (The Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists) and was one of four Canadians chosen to paint for the Canadian War Memorials. He was awarded the rank of captain and sent overseas in 1917. Unfortunately, the permits for him to sketch did not arrive, and so he was forced to hide in corners while drawing in the trenches. He described this time in a letter home, “…twenty sketches that I have made so far have been stolen and we have to hide away in odd corners where no one can see us to get anything at all…. old Fritz was trying to get a railway line that ran about four hundred yards in front of us and we could hear his stuff coming and watch the burst of it and believe me old dear…it is not conducive to steady draughtsmanship.”
Beatty remained in Britain for a few months afterwards and created the final oil paintings from the sketches he made on the front lines in France.
The artist’s wide open compositions are full of light and characterized by fat brush strokes which remind me of the Impressionist style of painting. Landscape is the focal point in his soft oils, and the ruined buildings and shell holes are secondary. Fresh spring greens and pale summer skies put the viewer in mind of warm June days when life is easy, not the front lines of the First World War. Odd that many of his Canadian landscapes appear bolder than those he created in the midst of war.
Beatty taught at the Ontario College of Art (OCA) and at the OCA summer school. The latter closed in 1935, but he continued to run the program privately. His influence as a teacher and artist resonated across Canada and can be felt today. He may have been one of the first artists to paint the grandeur of our northern landscapes, and in doing so helped set the tone for an iconographic style of Canadian art that is recognized the world over.
Email the writer at: firstname.lastname@example.org
Email a letter to the editor at: email@example.com
Many of the Canadian War Museum’s holdings are available in reproduction at affordable prices. For more information, contact Image Reproduction Services, Canadian War Museum, 1 Vimy Place, Ottawa, ON K1R 0C2; tel: 1-819-776-8686; fax: 1-819-776-8623; e-mail: Imageservices@warmuseum.ca