Artwork by Frederick Sproston Challener,  A Singing Lesson

F.S. Challener
A Singing Lesson

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1900 lower left; signed, titled and inscribed with the artist’s address on the reverse
20 x 18 ins ( 50.8 x 45.7 cms )

Auction Estimate: $6,000.00$4,000.00 - $6,000.00

Price Realized $9,000.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

Frances L. (Mrs. John) Firstbrook, Toronto (born 1869)
By descent to Mary I. Firstbrook (Mrs. William Robinson)
By descent to Frances C. Robinson (Mrs. Roberts)
By descent to Private Collection, Toronto
Joyner Waddington’s, auction, Toronto, 25 November 2008, lot 97
Private Collection
“Twenty-First Annual Exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, 15 February 1900, no. 18
“Annual Spring Exhibition of Oil Paintings, Watercolours, Sculpture, & C., Art Association of Montreal, 16 March 1900, no. 16
“Annual Exhibition”, Rochester Art Club, 17-29 November 1902, Syracuse Museum of Fine Arts, no. 24
“Ottawa Citizen”, 16 February 1900, which writes that “Mr. Frederick S. Challener’s A Singing Lesson, showing a young lady, clad in a yellow gown, standing before a piano, expresses, gracefully, an abundance of sentiment.”
“Ottawa Evening Journal”, 17 February 1900, writes: “It is invidious to draw comparisons, but in subject matter or composition, one is compelled to pause and pause long before that oil painting of the girl before the piano by one of Canada’s most promising and original artists – F. S. Challener…in the piano picture there is something so altogether fresh, daring and finished it would pay the art gallery jog-trotter to pull up here and stay pulled up. There is first the pose, of the girl with the finger on the keys and head thrown up and drooping gown coming back in almost moving folds and one of the elderly gentlemen whose face one sees reflected in the mirror with just enough of an old-fashioned choker to tell that the age was a century ago. Then the purplish haze predominates, running through the very gloom of the piano varnish from the vase above to the upturned hem of the girl’s gown. A novice would have left the music glare white. Not so Challener. The sheet is toned to the whole picture by means of a natural shadow and the yellow flow of the gown is relieved by a dash of red band beneath the shoulder.”
Jean Grant, “Saturday Night”, Toronto, 3 March 1900, writes that Challener’s “A Singing Lesson” is charming. “In the “Singing Lesson”, a young girl in a flowing robe of lovely yellow, holding a sheet of music in one hand, is getting her note on a piano with the other.”
“Annual Exhibition”, Rochester Art Club, 17-29 November 1902, no. 24, reproduced
J.W. Beatty, ‘A Canadian Painter and His Work’, “Canadian Magazine”, v. 26, April 1906, pages 546-551, reproduced. Beatty writes of “A Singing Lesson”, that in this painting, the artist is “much happier” than in his diploma picture for the R.C.A., “Workers of the Fields”. He calls the picture “much more satisfying” and adds that “the colour scheme, a fine harmony in yellow, grey and brown, in a rather low key, and the unity of the composition stamp it as one of the artist’s best efforts.”
Muriel Miller, ‘Famous Canadian Artists: F.S. Challener’, “Onward”, Toronto, 30 October 1938, page 383, “A Singing Lesson” is listed as one of Challener’s “Magna Opera”
Muriel Miller, “Famous Canadian Artists”, Peterborough, 1984, page 64, “A Singing Lesson” is listed as one of Challener’s “Magna Opera”
Philip Dombowski, “Walter S. Allward: Life & Work” [online publication], Art Canada Institute, 2021, reproduced page 7
Frederick Challener, Wikipedia [online publication], reproduced
“A Singing Lesson” by Frederick Challener is a triumph of close observation and beautifully modulated colour. It`s a lesson in seeing as well as a painting of a singing lesson. It`s visually complex but rendered so accurately and with such grace that we don`t realize how difficult the picture must have been to paint. As the title suggests, a young lady is shown vocalizing, holding a sheet of music in one hand while the other hand touches the keys of the pianoforte. In the mirror, the viewer sees the reflection of the head and one shoulder of the man accompanying her. His music stand also is shown. Light falls on her yellow dress, the music she holds and the music on the pianoforte, as well as on her arm and the fingers on the piano, a vase of blue flowers, the face of the accompanist, the elegant mirror and the room, making the scene into one of lyric beauty. The artist has seized a moment and captured it forever, giving “a singing lesson” to the viewer.

The model for the man was sculptor Walter Allward, later the artist of the Canadian National Vimy memorial, Challener's close friend, with whom he shared living quarters at the time in a room on the top floor of an office building in Toronto. Allward`s pose suggests that he's playing the cello, an instrument at which he was said to be “relatively proficient”.

Challener may have thought of the subject because his teacher and friend, G. A. Reid, would have praised his teacher Thomas Eakins who had painted the well-known “Woman Singing a Pathetic Song” (1881), an evocative depiction of the home musicale. Challener loved music as we know from other paintings by his circle of friends, among them Mary Hiester Reid. Around 1896, she painted “Study for an Idle Hour” (Museum London), which shows Challener listening intensely to music as artist Henrietta Vickers plays a piano. In “A Singing Lesson”, as in the Eakins painting, the earnest young singer is accompanied by a cellist in an interior and concentrates on her tune.

In 1899, Challener had been elected full Academician of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (R.C.A.). He was recognized that year as one of the leading artists in Canadian art. “The Gazette” (Montreal), wrote of him on April 19 that his work “entitles him to a place among the foremost of Canadian artists; it is, in the main, serious and sincere….”

“A Singing Lesson” is ambitious and even commanding, and reflects how Challener felt about his election to being a full member of the academy. Now, recognized as an artist, he must have felt he could suggest even such subtle matters as music in paint. Through a delicate interweaving of colour, primarily yellow and browns set off with sections of red, blue and green, Challener indicated the sensations that flow from music`s mysterious, enigmatic power so that the painting is “a singing lesson.”

Challener`s career was taken up with mural painting starting in 1899 but the paintings by him that exist are exquisitely painted and of real beauty. “A Singing Lesson” was a success for him and he exhibited it in the annual show of the R.C.A., the annual spring exhibition of the Art Association of Montreal and in the Rochester Art Club Annual Exhibition in 1902. It was a favorite too with writers of articles and books. Perhaps the most glowing words about it were those of J. W. Beatty who called it one of the artist’s “best efforts”. Praise coming from this person who was an artist himself and friend of Tom Thomson and the Group of Seven would have been seen as a tribute indeed to Challener. The painting is finely conceived and executed and in looking at it, we feel “compelled to pause and pause long,” like the writer for the “Ottawa Evening Journal” in 1900. No wonder it was owned by one family for so many years. It was purchased by Frances L. (Mrs. John) Firstbrook, Toronto (she was born in 1869), then treasured and passed down in the family before it came to auction in Toronto in 2008.

We extend our thanks to Joan Murray, Canadian art historian, for contributing the preceding essay.

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Frederick Sproston Challener
(1869 - 1959) OSA, RCA

Frederick Challener was born 1869 in Whetstone, England. After moving to Canada, Challener found a position in a Toronto stockbroker’s office. His mind was not focused on Stocks and Bonds, however, and he often sketched the crowds outside his office window. He spent his lunch hours in front of a nearby photography studio where Canadian artists regularly exhibited. On seeing his sketches, the owners of the studio sponsored him for enrolment in evening classes at the Ontario School of Art. Within months, teachers advised Challener that he was ready to work as an artist professionally. He got a job as an apprentice to a Toronto lithography company. Artist G.A. Reid, recognizing his talent, agreed to give him free instruction in the evenings.

By 1890, Challener had held his first solo show at the Royal Canadian Academy. During 1898-99 he traveled overseas to England, Italy, Egypt, Palestine and Syria. While there he was inspired by the variety of murals which were accessible to the public. Upon his return home he was strongly motivated to do mural work. A good friend of C. W. Jefferys, he worked with him on a number of murals, a collaboration which often resulted in both artists insisting that the other be given credit for the work. Challener made several paintings based on C. W. Jefferys’ drawings. A barn in Conestoga, Ontario, became a studio for his mural work. He completed murals in important buildings across the country such as the King Edward Hotel, Toronto (1900); the Royal Alexandra Theatre, Toronto (1907); Royal Alexandra Hotel, Winnipeg. (1909-12); and the MacDonald Hotel, Edmonton (1914).

In addition to his mural work, he experienced success as an easel painter. He received a Bronze Medal at the Pan American Exhibition in Buffalo for “The Workers of the Fields” which he deposited in the RCA diploma collection in the National Gallery of Canada. His work was generally realistic, romantic and often decorative. Most of his larger paintings were done in oils, while smaller works were often done in watercolour. He favoured wove paper for his drawings, using charcoal and pastel, black chalk or graphite. Several such drawings are housed in the collection of the National Gallery of Canada. In addition to his studio and mural work, Challener taught art at the Ontario College of Art from 1927 to 1952. He died in Toronto at the age of 90. His affiliations include the OSA from 1890, ARCA from 1891, and the RCA from 1899.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977