Artwork by William Kurelek,  Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Evening

William Kurelek
Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Evening

mixed media on board
signed with monogram and dated 1971 lower right; titled on the reverse of the artist’s frame
24.5 x 19 ins ( 62.2 x 48.3 cms )

Sold for $82,600.00
Sale date: November 19th 2019

Acquired directly from the artist
Private Collection, Ontario
William Kurelek, The Ukrainian Pioneer Woman in Canada: A Series of Twenty Paintings by William Kurelek, The Isaacs Gallery, Toronto, 1968, not paginated
William Kurelek painted “Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Evening” during a period of creative transition. The Canadian landscape had emerged as a dominant subject in the work of the Alberta-born, Manitoba-raised artist after he resettled in Toronto from England in 1959. However, it was not until the mid-1960s, in the wake of the country’s Centennial, that his landscapes began assuming a more nationalistic tenor. What distinguished Kurelek’s nationalist vision from that of previous Canadian artists was the emphasis he placed on regional and multicultural diversity. Whereas the country’s painting tradition, as it had been defined earlier in the twentieth century by such collectives as the Canadian Art Club, Group of Seven, and Canadian Group of Painters, had centred on the idea of an unindustrialized and underpopulated wilderness. The landscape became, for Kurelek, a responsive stage of human, and particularly immigrant, activity and exchange.

The seeds of the artist’s approach to the Canadian terrain were actually sown as early as 1964. That year he dedicated An Immigrant Farms in Canada, a series exhibited at Toronto’s Isaacs Gallery, to the migration experience of his parents’ family, especially his Ukrainian father. Kurelek followed An Immigrant Farms in Canada with The Ukrainian Pioneer Woman in Canada, a tribute to the artist’s mother, which was exhibited at the Ukrainian Pavilion at Expo ’67 in Montreal. The production of this series had been encouraged by the Toronto branch of the Ukrainian Women’s Association of Canada. Members of the association – including the collector who eventually acquired “Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Evening” – also had ties to the Ukrainian Women’s Institute of St. Vladimir, on Spadina Avenue.

The painting pictures a woman drawing water from a well at night on the Canadian Prairie in winter. The main thatched- roof structure is what Kurelek, in an explanatory text he composed for The Ukrainian Pioneer Woman in Canada, referred to as “the second house”: after the “burdei,” the “first real home of the Ukrainian settler...modeled after the homes they knew in the old country and usually ‘home-made’ thriftily with the materials at hand.” “Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Night” also evinces Kurelek’s skill as a professional picture framer. The painting’s surround combines two elements that recur throughout many works the artist produced about the lives of his immigrant ancestors: barnboard retrieved from his father’s farm outside Hamilton, and vyshyvka, traditional Ukrainian folk embroidery.

“Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Night” was produced at a time when Kurelek, a devote Roman Catholic, often peppered his work with mixed messages. Many of his paintings from this period oscillate between, for instance, heroically celebrating the economic progress of the Ukrainian diaspora in Canada, on the one hand, and castigating the hubristic excesses of a society that, having turned from God, teetered on the edge of apocalyptic calamity in the nuclear age, on the other. While “Pioneer Homestead on a Winter’s Night” is clearly concerned with the former, it hints at a darker theme. Although the painting’s nostalgic mood, along with the bright dog star, waxing sickle moon, and the home’s luminous interior, convey comfort and optimism, the night’s cold, enveloping blackness undercuts the scene’s otherwise placid simplicity. Kurelek felt deep appreciation for natural beauty, but he often sought, through landscape, to remind the viewer that, “Nature gives not a drop of comfort, can do nothing, will do beings are trapped by her pitiless laws.”

We extend our thanks to Andrew Kear, Canadian art historian and Head of Collections, Exhibitions and Programs at Museum London for contributing the preceding essay. Andrew is the past Chief Curator and Curator of Canadian art at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, a Curator of the 2011/2012 national travelling exhibition William Kurelek: The Messenger and author of the Art Canada’s Institute’s William Kurelek: Life & Work, available at

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William Kurelek
(1927 - 1977) RCA

Kurelek was the son of Ukrainian immigrant farmers. He grew up during the Great Depression on a grain farm in Alberta and then a dairy farm in Manitoba. His hard-working father thought that his son was lazy and was not pleased when he decided to pursue his studies in art. His father's rejection was to haunt him all of his life. Kurelek studied art at the University of Manitoba where he graduated with his Bachelor of Arts in 1949. He worked in lumber camps to raise money for his art studies and did other odd jobs. He then studied six months at the Ontario College of Art but found he needed more freedom to develop at his own pace and interest, preferring to teach himself through books.

He sailed for England in 1952 where he found a happier environment, a more tolerant acceptance for what he wanted to paint. He also apprenticed himself to a picture framer, Frederick Pollock, from whom he learned this exacting craft. Stephen Franklin in ’Weekend Magazine’ described his years in England as follows, “In seven years Kurelek found both happiness and sadness in London. His painstaking fool-the-eye paintings of pound notes and other objects found their way into three Royal Academy summer shows, but he was increasingly bothered by eye trouble for which there was no physical cause. He plumbed the depth of emotional despair, contemplated suicide, and wound up in hospital for more than a year. It was here that he began his conversion – from boyhood membership in the Orthodox Church and subsequent atheism – to Catholicism which has deeply affected his life since.”

It was there that he drew many self-portraits and scenes of farm life from his youth. He also developed his unique style of outlining the drawing with a ballpoint pen, using coloured pencils for texture and adding details in pen. Careful examination of his drawings reveals images full of realism with minute details of things like cots, clothes and even insects. Under the pen of William Kurelek, prairie farm scenes and landscapes came to life.

He returned to Toronto in 1959, and visited Avrom Isaacs, looking for a job as picture framer. It was his paintings which caught the eye if Isaacs, who became his art dealer. In 1960, Kurelek held his first one man show at the Isaacs Gallery. By the time of his death in 1977, Kurelek had produced over 2000 paintings. Many of Kurelek's painting were produced to accompany books for children. For these he won several awards including the New York Times' Best Illustrated Children's Book Award for A Prairie Boy's Winter and Lumberjack, and the Canadian Association of Children's Librarians Illustrators Award for A Prairie Boy's Summer.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume II”, compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1979