- Visibly Canadian: Imaging Collective Identities in the Canadas, 1820–1910 by Karen Stanworth
This thoughtful and wide-ranging exploration of early Canadian cultural identities is the publisher’s fifteenth volume in the Study in Art History series, supported by the Beaverbrook Canadian Foundation. As the author notes, concern with national identity has a long history in Canada, from the work of artists like the Group of Seven to the writings of literary figures like Robertson Davies and Margaret Atwood. Today, as this book demonstrates, identity is being explored in other ways, through studies of collecting practices and acts of public and private commemoration.
Karen Stanworth’s nine chapters investigate identity from the standpoint of visual culture studies. Part One, “Visibly Ordered,” groups three case studies of collecting practices in two early Canadian museums. In Part Two, “Visibly Public,” the author interprets three public spectacles as performances of community identity. Finally, Part Three, “Visibly Related,” investigates portraits as documents of cultural norms and social practices.
The first chapter of Part One, “A Picture of Quebec,” suggests that the 1824 foundation of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec under the auspices of Governor-in-Chief Lord Dalhousie perpetuated “the cultural norms of the colonizer.” The scientists and professionals who established the Society for the Encouragement of Sciences and Arts three years later were soon subsumed by the earlier gentleman’s association, and the group’s museum, housed alongside government offices, exhibited objects that “consolidated” the problematic history of the conqueror. Second, “A Laboratory of Learning” deals with Egerton Ryerson’s Toronto Normal School and its Educational Museum. While Ryerson believed in universal access to education, the currency of Johann Heinrich Pestalozzi’s object lessons as a teaching method meant that Ryerson’s museum reflected nineteenth-century empiricism and narratives of citizenship and social belonging. Stanworth’s third chapter in this part revisits these collections in the later nineteenth century. “Whose Lessons?” asserts that both collections perpetuated narratives of nationhood centred on Britain. More recently, however, the papers of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, now in the Archives Publiques du Québec, survive instead as “remnants of a disappearing English culture.”
Part Two, “Staging a Siege,” documents evening grandstand spectacles at Toronto’s Dominion and Industrial Fair in which historical events were restaged with dramatic fireworks displays to thrill viewers and forge collective “memory pictures” of imperial victories. The next chapter, “Bilingual Memories,” reveals a surprising decision by the St-Jean-Baptiste Society in Quebec City to alter the date of its annual parade to coincide with the celebration of Queen Victoria’s Diamond Jubilee, a signal that “the institutions of the crown [in the Laurier era] were conceived as [End Page 350] matching the progressive intentions of a canadien-dominated liberalism.” The final essay in this part, “The Body Corporate Gets a Wriggle On,” suggests that the major event of the Diamond Jubilee celebration in Montreal was essentially a St-Jean-Baptiste Day parade with the “nominal addition” of British patriotic societies. To engender cultural amity, two allegorical chars (floats) of Confederation and Progress were included, together with the usual St-Jean-Baptiste themes, to construct an identity shared by each linguistic community on different terms.
Part Three considers expressions of personal identity. “‘Born with a Silver Spoon and Fork’” traces the futures of young women from Bute House Protestant girls’ school in Montreal through composite photographs in an 1873 commemorative album. In “The Family Portrait,” Ludger Larose’s 1907 Intérieur: Scène familiale (now known as Jeanne at the Piano) mirrors cultural practices in canadien bourgeois society. Finally, “Visual Rhetoric” charts the changing interpretations of a 1773 group portrait of John Graves Simcoe and his friends. Commissioned to record private collegial bonds, the work became a symbol of Simcoe’s aspirations for an institution of higher learning after it was donated to the University of Toronto in the 1920s.
Each chapter concludes with archival notes that introduce a personal voice into the authoritative narrative of the text. Documents once accessible in one...