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Manly MacDonald

Paintings by Manly MacDonald depict work on the home front during World War 1.

We often think of rugged northern landscapes when we picture Canadian art, but Manly MacDonald preferred the charm of rural life in southern Ontario. His generous style had a distinctly Canadian spirit, and his large wartime landscapes of women working the fields are a wonderful portion of the Canadian War Museum’s collection. MacDonald created big art for a big land.

He was born in 1889 at Point Anne, Ont., and studied at the Ontario College of Art, the Albright Art School, Buffalo, N.Y., and the Museum of Fine Arts in Boston. He won a travelling scholarship from the Canadian Academy and visited art galleries in France, Spain and Italy. That trip may have been a contributor to his easy impressionistic style.

In 1918 he was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to paint the home front during World War I. It was an inspired choice. MacDonald loved to paint the rural corners of Ontario and his war art commissions tapped into that passion.

His generous strokes are a nice reflection of our bountiful harvest, and the rich colours of his palette complement Canada’s fresh autumn landscapes. The artist preferred to paint in the open air and would create a number of preliminary studies before he began a final canvas. He would assure himself of the best time for light and the most appealing composition. This careful preparation shows in the confidence and speed of his brush work in the finished paintings. There is a feeling of sunlight in all of his war art.

MacDonald, Kenneth Forbes (another war artist) and other traditional painters formed the Ontario Institute of Painters as a retaliation against the modern art movement of the time. MacDonald resigned from the modern-leaning Ontario Society of Artists in 1951 because of the depth of his commitment to traditional and impressionistic painting.

Throughout the artist’s 60-year career, MacDonald capably supported his family by painting, supplemented by a little commercial fishing. He painted outside, winter and summer, from his home in Toronto and a second residence near the Bay of Quinte up until his death in 1971.

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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:


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