Artwork by Lucius Richard O'Brien,  Through the Rocky Mountains, a Pass on the Canadian Highway

Lucius O’Brien
Through the Rocky Mountains, a Pass on the Canadian Highway

signed and dated 1887 lower right
40 x 27.5 ins ( 101.6 x 69.9 cms ) ( sheet )

Auction Estimate: $20,000.00$15,000.00 - $20,000.00

Price Realized $72,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

The Artist, until at least 1893
Mrs. J. Home Cameron, Toronto, by May 1959
McMichael Canadian Collection, Kleinburg, Ontario
McCready Gallery, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, circa 1972
Possibly “Eighth Annual Exhibition of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts”, Art Association of Montreal, from 20 April 1887, no. 117 Dudley Gallery Art Society, London, England, January‒February 1888, no. 1
“Fine Art Exhibition”, Bewick Club, Newcastle-Upon-Tyne, 1888, no. 1
“A Selection of Twenty-seven Water Colour Drawings, Illustrating Scenery in ‘The Rocky Mountains’ and ‘Pacific Coast’ British Columbia. By L.R. O’Brien, Esq. President of the Royal Canadian Academy”, Thomas McLean’s Gallery, London, from 22 June 1889, no. 1
“Lucius R. O’Brien”, W. Scott & Sons, Montreal, from 12 March 1892, no. 2 as “A Pass on the Canadian Highway” at $350
“The Palette Club”, Lucius O’Brien’s Studio, Toronto, 10‒11 February 1893, no. 22 as “The Kicking Horse Pass” at $350
“Lucius R. O’Brien”, Matthews Bros, Toronto, from 12 December 1893, no. 1 as “A Pass on the Canadian Highway” $350
“Our Own Country Canada”, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; travelling to Winnipeg Art Gallery; Vancouver Art Gallery; Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 24 November 1978‒19 August 1979, no. 125
“Historische Maleriei Kanadas, in OKANADA”, Akademie der Künste, Berlin, travelling to Instituts für Auslandsbeziehungen, Stuttgart, 5 December 1982‒20 March 1983, no. 23
“Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto; travelling to Musée du Québec, Quebec City; Vancouver Art Gallery; Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, 14 May 1988‒7 May 1989, no. 20
“Lucius R. O’Brien: Visions of Victorian Canada”, Art Gallery of Ontario, Toronto, travelling to the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa; Vancouver Art Gallery; Musée du Québec, 28 September 1990‒14 July 1991, no. 57
“Plain Truth”, Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon, travelling to the Glenbow, Calgary; MacKenzie Art Gallery, Regina, 13 March‒21 November 1998, no. 249
“Vistas: Artists on the C.P.R.”, Glenbow Museum, Calgary, 20 June‒20 September 2009
“Embracing Canada: Landscapes from Krieghoff to the Group of Seven”, Vancouver Art Gallery, travelling to the Glenbow Museum, Calgary; Art Gallery of Hamilton, 30 October 2015‒25 September 2016
“Highlights from ‘Embracing Canada’”, Galerie Eric Klinkhoff, Montreal, 22 October‒5 November 2016, no. 9
‘The Art Exhibition. Some Notices of the Pictures Displayed’, “The Herald” (Montreal), 21 April 1887, as “The New Route to the East – a Pass on the Canadian Railway”
‘Art and Artists’, “Toronto Saturday Night”, VI:13 (18 February 1893), page 15, as “The Kicking Horse Pass”
‘Saturday Art Supplement’, “Daily Mail” (Toronto), 13 May 1893, reproduced as “Through the Rocky Mountains. A pass of the Canadian Pacific Railway”
Dennis Reid, "'Our Own Country Canada': Being an Account of the National Aspirations of the Principal Landscape Artists in Montreal and Toronto 1860-1890", National Gallery of Canada Journal 31 (24 November 1978), reproduced page 8
John Bentley Mays, ‘Black and white in color’, “Maclean’s” (15 January 1979), reproduced page 47
Dennis Reid, “‘Our Own Country Canada’: Being an Account of the National Aspirations of the Principal Landscape Artists in Montreal and Toronto 1860-1890”, Ottawa, 1979, pages 397-400, 414-415, reproduced page 415, as painted from O’Brien’s 1887 trip to the Rockies
Dennis Reid, ‘Lucius O’Brien’, in “OKANADA, Akademie der Künste”, Berlin, 1982, reproduced page 52; original texts for German-language catalogue, page 51
Allan Pringle, “Artists of the Canadian Pacific Railway”, (M.A. thesis, Concordia University, Montreal, 1983), pages 55-60, 85, 121, 144, as “Bridge‒Kicking Horse Pass‒Second Crossing”, reproduced illustration 2
Sid Marty, “A Grand and Fabulous Notion: The First Century of Canada’s National Parks”, Toronto, 1984, reproduced page 50
Allan Pringle, “William Cornelius Van Horne: Art Director, Canadian Pacific Railway,” The Journal of Canadian Art History, 8 (1984), pages 63-66, 77 note 65, as “Bridge‒Kicking Horse Pass‒Second Crossing”
Craig Brown, editor, “The Illustrated History of Canada”, Toronto, 1987 (and 1990), reproduced page 360
Dennis Reid, “Collector’s Canada: Selections from a Toronto Private Collection”, Toronto, 1988, reproduced pages 28‒29
Dennis R. Reid, “Lucius R. O’Brien: Visions of Victorian Canada”, Toronto, 1990, pages 79‒80, 92 notes 51, 53, reproduced page 163 Dennis Reid, ‘O’Brien, Lucius Richard’, in “Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. XII”, Toronto, 1990, page 795
Lynda Jessup, “Canadian Artists, Railways, The State and ‘The Business of Becoming a Nation’” (Ph.D. dissertation, University of Toronto, 1992), pages 190, 205‒206, 214-215, reproduced figure 59
Roger Boulet, “Vistas: Artists on the Canadian Pacific Railway”, Calgary, 2009, pages 61‒65, [70?], reproduced page 108
Nancy Townshend, “Art Inspired by the Canadian Rockies, Purcell Mountains and Selkirk Mountains 1809-2012”, Calgary, 2012, page 10, reproduced insert 5
“Infrastructure Canada: Daniel Young and Christian Giroux”, Oakville, 2012, page 251, reproduced page 249
Lucius O’Brien was the most prominent Canadian artist of his generation, yet he only became active in Toronto art circles in 1873, at the age of forty, when he became a member of, and exhibited with, the newly established Ontario Society of Artists. He became vice-president of the society the following year and was chosen to be the first president of the Canadian Academy of Arts by the Governor General, the Marquess of Lorne, in 1880, a position he would hold for ten years.

As Dennis Reid has shown, the nationalist landscape movement from the 1860s to the 1890s was intimately linked to the growth of the railways that would contribute so much to the development of Canada and to the uniting of its disparate territories. Working in oils, and more frequently in watercolour, O’Brien painted landscapes of the Baie des Chaleurs, Quebec City, the Saguenay and Gaspé as well as numerous regions of Ontario, as far west as Thunder Bay.

In 1871 the federal government committed itself to constructing a transcontinental railway to British Columbia as a condition of that province entering Confederation; yet the Canadian Pacific Railway would only be completed in 1885 and the first commercial run occurred in the summer of 1886. Key to the completion of its construction was William Van Horne, an American who became general manager of the company in 1882. The new railway needed settlers and passengers to survive and he aggressively set out to publicize the new line and the beauties of the many landscapes it traversed, first in photographs then in paintings.

Van Horne had his eyes on an English audience and wanted a good representation of mountain views for the Colonial and Indian Exhibition in London in May 1886. As Allan Pringle has observed, these mountain views would prove to be more attractive to tourists than settlers. John Fraser was the first artist to be commissioned (in 1885) before the line was opened, so necessarily his first efforts were worked up from photographs.

Van Horne offered artists free transportation, accommodation and assistance to paint sites along the railway line in the mountains and was pleased when the Canadian Academy’s president applied in November 1885. Lucius O’Brien left Toronto for the Rocky Mountains on 19 June 1886. He worked in the vicinity of the CPR’s Glacier House hotel which provided access to The Big Glacier, Syndicate Peak, Rogers Pass and Valley of the Illecillewaet.

In his groundbreaking study of Canadian mid-nineteenth century landscape painting, “Our Own Country Canada” (1979) Dennis Reid surmised that “Through the Rocky Mountains, A Pass on the Canadian Highway” resulted from O’Brien’s second trip to the Rockies, in 1887, an interpretation he corrected in his magisterial study of Lucius O’Brien’s life and art in 1990. In that catalogue Reid wrote, “The CPR picture par excellence, it is set in the Kicking Horse Pass, where two engines in tandem are depicted puling a train up the world’s longest and steepest gradient, across Kicking Horse Bridge, beneath towering Mount Stephen. [O’Brien] had bought it to the attention of Van Horne first in a letter of mid April 1887 as he was about to ship his paintings off to Montreal for the RCA exhibition. ‘Among the pictures there will be one I have painted to send to London, as an illustration of our Canadian Highway through the mountains. It is to go on Exhibition at the Dudley Gallery to which I have been asked to contribute.’ In January 1888 O’Brien sent Van Horne a black and white study for the Dudley Gallery painting, noting that ÓIt does not pretend to be literal but is an endeavour to convey the impression made by the scene on the artist.”

O’Brien exhibited eleven mountain watercolours with the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in Montreal in April 1887, ten of which were purchased by Sir George Stephen (later Lord Strathcona). One watercolour for the Academy exhibition, titled in O’Brien’s studio book, The New Route to the East, was identified by the artist as not for sale. The unsold work in the RCA exhibition catalogue was titled “The Valley of the Illicilliwaet” and was priced at $250, but was referred to in a review in the Montreal “Herald as The New Route to the East – a Pass on the Canadian Railway”. On the back of the frame on this watercolour are two labels in O’Brien’s hand, one for the Dudley Gallery exhibition and one for the Bewick Club in Newcastle-upon-Tyme. On both the work is titled by the artist “Through the Rocky Mountains, a Pass on the Canadian Highway”. To complicate things further, Allan Pringle (1983) suggests that it was first referred to in correspondence with Van Horne as “Bridge – Kicking Horse Pass – Second Crossing”, possibly more of an identification of the subject than a title.

A smaller version of this watercolour, measuring 43.8 x 31.9 cm, inscribed on the verso “Kicking Horse Pass (about 5000 ft.)”, is in the collection of the British Columbia Archives, Victoria (acc. no. 4,901), and it might have been painted on site, while the large was watercolour painted in O’Briens Toronto studio. In fact, this work is the largest of all O’Brien’s mountain watercolours.

Again we have to thank Dennis Reid for his vivid description of this watercolour. “[T]he real pleasure in this painting is in the virtuoso handling of the paint. There is a wonderful sense of the transparency of watercolour in the description of light refracting through the sediment-filled glacial stream, and particularly in the tumble of sunlight across the spill of broken rock that is the principal passage in the picture”. Various vapours – in this case, foggy mist off the stream, steam from the engines, and moisture-laden clouds – are clearly distinguishable one from the other, their particular textures attained in the water medium by a skilful use of the sponge. Each of the various set pieces, such as the prominent felled tree in the right foreground, the stunning pair of spruce trees to the left, the carefully observed varieties of rock, are themselves delightfully complex, brilliantly composed pictures. The majestically moving, symphonic composition emerges in the broad sweeps of light and shade.” It is not surprising that this watercolour has become a classic image of its age as evidenced by the frequent requests to be included in exhibitions and publications.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven‒ Art for a Nation”, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Lucius Richard O'Brien
(1832 - 1899) OSA, PRCA

Lucius O'Brien was born in 1832 in Shanty Bay, Ontario. He studied at Upper Canada College and worked as a civil engineer until 1872 at which time he devoted himself to painting. O'Brien excelled at landscape painting, both in oil and watercolour, and his subject matter spans locations across the country. O'Brien served as vice-president to the Ontario Society of Artists, was the founding president of the Royal Canadian Academy (1880), and contributed a large number of drawings to Picturesque Canada (1882) of which he was the editor.