William Ronald was one of Canada's most critically acclaimed and internationally successful artists emerging in the 1950s.

After graduating with an Honour Diploma First Class from the Ontario College of Art in 1951, Ronald began to disrupt the sedate Toronto art establishment with his aggressive style of abstract painting. Although its youngest member, he was the instigator in the formation of the Toronto abstract art group Painters Eleven. After moving to New York in 1955, Ronald arranged for the Painters Eleven's successful New York show at the Riverside Museum in April 1956. A highly favorable review of the exhibit in the influential publication Art News described Ronald's work as "the most sensational of the group."

In late 1956, William Ronald was awarded the first Guggenheim Prize for its Canadian section over more established painters such as Jean-Paul Riopelle and Paul-Emile Borduas. The painting submitted to the competition was the masterpiece of his Toronto Period, "In Dawn The Heart" (collection of the Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto). This painting was included in his Hart House Art Gallery solo show, "Paintings and Poems", in February 1955.

In the competitive New York art market, Ronald was embraced and advised by the first generation Abstract Expressionists Mark Rothko, Robert Motherwell, Theodoros Stamos and his sometime teacher, Hans Hofmann. Starting from zero, Ronald made a significant mark upon the New York art scene in little more than a year. The Kootz Gallery, one of New York's major galleries who represented Pablo Picasso, soon contracted the thirty year-old artist. Ronald would have seven solo exhibitions at the Kootz Gallery in New York from 1957 to 1963. Never resting on laurels, he carefully crafted each show to be a unique, artistic evolution.

On April 15, 1957, Ronald's "insurgent" debut New York exhibition won critical acclaim. With his innovation of the central image in abstract expressionism, his artistic signature was established right in his first exhibit in such paintings as "Central Black" (collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa), "The Raven" (collection of the Yale University Art Gallery, New Haven) and "Saint-Paulia" (collection of the the Museum of Modern Art, New York). With the endorsement of major artists such as Franz Kline, Rothko, and Hofmann plus critics such as Robert Coates (who coined the term "abstract expressionism"), Howard Devree of the New York Times and Clement Greenberg, Ronald gained important collectors such as Richard Brown Baker (the talent scouting collector noted for purchasing Jackson Pollock's "Arabesque") and later the noted author James A. Michener.

By the end of 1957, William Ronald had works in major public galleries including the Museum of Modern Art, the Guggenheim Museum, the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario) and the National Gallery of Canada. This list would grow substantially over time. By 1983, his work was in every major Canadian public art gallery and over 45 important American art museums.

Given the prestigious opening exhibit at the new Kootz Gallery at 655 Madison Avenue at East 60th Street, Ronald prepared the most intense and dramatic show of his career for October 1959. His almost psychedelic colour palette, large scale and oddly shaped canvases with images suggesting representation shocked even the abstract expressionist establishment, with paintings such as "Arrival III" (collection of the Art Gallery of Windsor). The opening was described as a mob scene - so crowded that only the tops of the paintings could be seen. A photo of the artist taken on that night shows the jubilant artist chatting with a laughing Hans Hofmann, who was also a Kootz Gallery artist. As the center of attention in the center of the art world in a boom period, it was an overwhelming night for a still young 33-year-old artist from Canada.

On the last day of the 1950s decade, at an artistic peak, William Ronald was now unquestionably one of Canada's most successful artists ever:

"When you talk about Canadian painting in New York, you talk about William Ronald, because he's just about the only Canadian we know down there."
-Frank Stella, Toronto Telegram, May 13, 1966

William Ronald's first business of the 1960s was a return to Toronto. The Laing Galleries was located across Bloor Street from the Royal Ontario Museum where Ronald had spent many hours as a student. Ronald attended the reception for his show "New Paintings" at Laing Galleries on March 26, 1960. "YOU WILL RARELY see the work of a more powerful painter than William Ronald" was the opening line of the Toronto Star's highly favorable review of the exhibition. The Globe and Mail review concluded that "This is veritably important work" and "Ronald is now a big name in art."

William Ronald created an impact at Princeton University with his standing room only attended lecture "William Ronald on William Ronald" in February 1961. The Art Museum of Princeton University offered him a career retrospective exhibit for the fall of 1961. Due to a scheduled Paris show, that ultimately was cancelled, his first career retrospective opened in February 1963. For a painter less than twelve years out of art school, this was an incredible honor for a 36 year-old Canadian. Ronald's retrospective was followed by one accorded to the internationally famous surrealist May Ray, who was twice his age.

For the first time in his career, published on December 20, 1962, William Ronald created the cover for a major art magazine, Art International. As his cover for Art International hit the stands in New York and other art capitals, the artist's sixth solo show opened at the Kootz Gallery on January 2, 1963. In the New York Times, Stuart Preston described the show a "hard edged, infinitely resourceful pattern-making on the part of William Ronald." Sam Kootz, anticipating a successful show, had a specially designed William Ronald logo adorn the catalogue with a beautiful color reproduction of the painting "Cloud" (collection of the Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa). Stuart Preston, a few months later wrote in the New York Times that he considered the exhibition one of the winter's outstanding shows with William Ronald as a champion of the "hard-edged" school.

William Ronald became an American citizen on September 3, 1963. He seems to have idolized the country's young, progressive president John F. Kennedy. On November 22, when Kennedy was brutally assassinated in Dallas, new American citizen Ronald experienced sheer revulsion. There were only nine days to go before an opening night in New York. It must have seemed like a bad dream, almost surreal, but William Ronald continued painting. He was determined to finish the show like a seasoned professional. The opening night was a muted affair in contrast to his previous six shows. But it was an artistic triumph. Inadvertently, through his personal crises of 1963, he had created a body of work that was a tonic for the psychological pain the public was feeling from the Kennedy assassination. He had come full circle with this final New York solo show. While his 1957 debut was chaotic and agitated, this ultimate show was a peaceful and introspective end to his artistic journey.

For the seventh time, William Ronald had created an important New York solo show. However, it was the final time. Now, at only 37-years-old, William Ronald had already experienced more than most artists do in a lifetime. He needed to walk away from the business for a time to recover from his psychological and physical exhaustion. By May 1965, the Globe and Mail headlined a Ronald-focused story, "U.S. Artist Likes Life of Recluse."

Described by the Toronto Star as the "young tycoon of the art trade," David Mirvish arranged a meeting with Sam Kootz and William Ronald in New York in early July 1964. Kootz, the formal sixty-six-year-old lawyer and modernist legend of the New York art world, who stumped the competition to become Picasso's dealer in the 1940s, was charmed by the nineteen year-old art gallery director. In what was one of the top art openings in Toronto of 1965, a large crowd came out to the David Mirvish Gallery to greet the return of William Ronald as a local legend. Almost all the players in the Toronto art world were attendance including artists William Kurelek, Robert Markle, Dennis Burton, Gerald Gladstone, Robert Hedrick and even Barbara Macdonald, the wife of his favourite OCA teacher and Painters Eleven-member Jock Macdonald who had died tragically in 1960.

Ronald did not disappoint the hometown crowd as it was one of the most innovative shows in his career. The Toronto Star's art critic Gail Dexter Lord wrote that in the show "there seem to be millions of paintings". William Ronald created this effect with paintings on moving panels that could be rearranged in many combinations. In The Telegram review, critic Barrie Hale wrote that Ronald used "an awesomely adventurous range of colors" and that "there is an inexhaustible supply of painting ideas in each work."

The opening was a triumphant return to Toronto. Although his plan was to return to his career in the United States, Ronald would never hold another solo exhibition in New York. Times had changed in his favour. There was now an endless amount of opportunity for a painter of international stature in Toronto.

"The Priest And The Painter Fight For Ward's Island"
- headline from The Telegram, Saturday, July 24, 1965

Now living in the idyll of the Toronto Islands, there was an imminent and menacing threat of destruction for the remaining peaceful community by the City of Toronto. William Ronald told an interviewer, "Walking by the lake about twilight, the sky is all red and gold. It's the feeling you get from a photograph in a good European film." In Bergmanesque terms, he expressed his own love of this beautiful place. With his friend Father Paul Hopkins, they joined together in collaboration to save the remaining community through art and a high profile media campaign.

Given his international reputation and his love of creating murals, it was natural that William Ronald would use his talent and fame to create the largest mural to that point of his life in "The Rectory." In spite of abundant well-paid opportunities, Ronald generously donated his time to the project, with the goal of saving the community. It was immediately apparent that William Ronald's Toronto Island mural was something special. Toronto Star art critic Gail Dexter Lord wrote this memorable description, "As you turn your back on the lake and walk up the path to the stucco building, you can see the brilliant colours of the mural Ronald has painted inside." In her opinion, "The mural is breath-taking. The whole thing has a cosmic quality."

The bulldozers never destroyed their community. The Toronto Island community remains a beautiful refuge from the city. But the City of Toronto would ultimately get its brutal revenge by painting over the mural in the early 1970s. The building survives. Under countless layers of house paint, there is one of the great masterpieces of Canadian art. Appropriately, Canadian Art magazine featured a stunning John Reeves cover photograph of William Ronald standing in front of the mural in April 1966.

By the time the Canadian Art cover story hit the stands, William Ronald was now one of the most talked about television personalities in Canada. It happened almost overnight. A spin-off of the massive publicity that he received from the Toronto Island mural was an intriguing offer that he could not refuse from a CBC producer to host a Sunday afternoon arts program called The Umbrella. The CBC took ads describing the show as "Internationally famed William Ronald surveys the lively arts".

The Umbrella was innovative. William Ronald used his New York connections to score interviews with legendary friends and colleagues like Marcel Duchamp, Alexander Calder, John Cage and Henry Moore. With a shockingly large audience of up to one million two hundred thousand viewers in a usually dead time slot, the CBC management took notice of the surprise hit. Expecting a safe, dull exercise with low ratings, they commissioned the CBC public affairs department to inquire what went wrong. After extensive study, the problem was determined to be the show's incredibly popular but slightly controversial host, William Ronald. In late 1966, the play-it-safe CBC chose not to renew The Umbrella. After completing its run of 13 episodes, one of the CBC's most innovative and popular shows of the sixties was axed just before the nation entered its centennial year.

In concession, the CBC offered William Ronald work in radio with a lively arts program Theme & Variations. In addition to his job at the CBC, he organized the most ambitious painting of his career. When it was finished, it was 44 feet high and 60 feet wide on 98 panels and weighed 5 tons. The mural was a commissioned work for the National Arts Centre ("NAC") in Ottawa. It is a boldly coloured work in the hard-edged style of abstraction popular in the late 1960s.

Due to its massive scale, it's impossible to view the full NAC mural. The Globe and Mail's art critic Kay Kritzwiser described it best on May 31, 1969, "William Ronald's big beautiful mural lilts across three walls of hexagon like bars of music."

The NAC mural was the largest work created in the career of William Ronald. As it is still in place today after generations, it is unquestionably also his most seen painting. With his fee from the NAC mural and a high-profile job at the CBC, Ronald ended the one of the most chaotic and creative decades in world history financially secure and on a career high.

William Ronald pursued his muse as a Canadian artist until the end of his life. As the pressures of the life of a successful artist are great, there are very few examples of artists who stay true to themselves. William Ronald is a rare example.

Beginning in 1977, William Ronald began to work on a more conceptual show by happenstance. John Morris, son of art dealer Jerrold Morris, suggested that he should apply for a Canada Council senior grant. The financially independent artist said that he would only apply if Morris himself would submit the proposal. When asked for the theme of the grant, the artist, anticipating rejection by the federal agency, blurted out, "I'll paint the goddamn prime ministers." In this spontaneous inspiration, he hit upon the idea of painting abstract portraits of Canada's Prime Ministers.

William Ronald was surprised to receive a grant of $16,000 from the Canada Council. When he completed the series in 1984, he half jokingly said that he would only sell the series as a set for $1 million dollars. At a later date, an art loving former radio baron named Irving Zucker purchased the entire Prime Ministers series for an undisclosed sum. While the exact amount the artist received is unknown, it appears to have been the largest payday in his long career. Zucker donated the entire series to the Kitchener-Waterloo Art Gallery in 1993.

Prime Minister Pierre Elliott Trudeau was greatly admired by William Ronald. The painting that the artist named after the politician is the most successful work in the Prime Ministers series. The artist drew on his entire career to create the work. It is almost a William Ronald retrospective summarized in one painting. When the painting was complete, taking his loyal photographer Reeves along, the artist arranged a meeting with Prime Minister Trudeau in his office in Ottawa. Based on the photos, it was a riotous meeting with the artist greatly amusing the intellectual politician. Flattered by such an epic artistic statement, Trudeau committed to attending the opening of the Prime Ministers at the Art Gallery of Ontario on April 30, 1984.

The Prime Ministers at the Art Gallery of Ontario was a successful show. The Toronto Star had a front page photo of William Ronald and Prime Minister Trudeau on the morning after the opening. With its unusual concept, the Prime Ministers crossed over into mainstream media and garnished a large amount of publicity. The show was restaged in the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Edmonton Art Gallery in late 1984, at the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia in 1985 and finally in Quebec at the Musée d'art de Joliette from December 4, 1988 to January 29, 1989.

The last major show of William Ronald's life opened on February 10, 1996 at Toronto's Christopher Cutts Gallery. Nattily dressed, the artist was in great spirits on the opening night. He proudly told Val Ross of the Globe and Mail that "About 500 people turned up… It was fabulous - a panic – as good as any New York opening!" He had arthritis, high blood pressure, walked with a cane and told the interviewer that he was experiencing temporary hearing loss. "It hurts to paint… I take painkillers, three a day." Although in physical decline at age 69, his zest for life and determination are unbowed in the Ross article:

"Re-capitulate! growls Ronald. "Capitulate means surrender! That's a terrible word!"

"I've been very lucky. A great life."

While William Ronald faced the reality that his health was precarious and that his life could end at any time given his heart condition, he still had a few surprises up his sleeve. In 1997, the last full year of his life, he discovered fluid acrylic paint. Early in the next year, during an all night session in his Barrie studio, while he was vigorous putting the finishing touches on his final 72 x 72 inch fluid acrylic masterpiece (posthumously titled "Last Painting" or "Heart Attack"), William Ronald began to feel unwell. Taken by ambulance to the hospital, it was determined that he'd suffered another heart attack. Surprisingly, he began to recover and was in boisterous spirits for his remaining hospital stay. Just before he was scheduled for an imminent release, his heart finally gave way on the morning of February 9, 1998 at age 71.

William Ronald made a major contribution to Canadian art. He was one the most internationally successful and widely discussed Canadian artists of the 20th century. He dedicated his life to art with considerable energy and charisma. His art is loved and cherished today. It is a staple of the Canadian fine art auction market. In addition, he was extremely generous to the people he met and kindly contributed his time and effort to charitable work. A seminal figure in the Toronto art scene of the 20th century, William Ronald's greatest legacy is that his role was a cornerstone of its growth and evolution.

Further essential reading related to William Ronald:

Oral history interview with William Ronald, 1963 April 18-June 2, Archives of American Art, Smithsonian Institution. Conducted by Richard Brown Baker. Free link:

"Some aspects of William Ronald", Theodore Allen Heinrich, artscanada, March/April 1977.

"Eagle Among Hummingbirds: A Critical Analysis of the Work of William Ronald", William Fabrycki, The University of Windsor Review, Spring-Summer 1978

- Biography written by Lawrence Brissenden, Reviewed by The Estate of William Ronald in May, 2021

We extend our thanks to Lawrence Brissenden and the Estate of William Ronald for writing and contributing this comprehensive artist biography.

View "Art Career of William Ronald" video by Lawrence Brissenden: shorturl.at/fFGOP


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