Cornelius David Krieghoff was born in Holland in 1815 and spent the better part of his youth in Germany. At age 22, he moved to the United States, where he enlisted for a three-year term with the U.S. Army. During the three years following his service, he spent most of his time working in the household trades: house painting and furniture upholstering.
In 1844, Krieghoff moved to Toronto with his francophone wife, Emilie Gauthier, and his son. He began advertising himself as an “artist” and making large sums of money doing portraits. In 1846, at age 31, he established himself as a professional artist in Quebec, when he began combining Genre painting, favoured by Dutch masters such as Breughel and Jann Steen, with the Canadian landscape and people. In doing so, he found success and helped establish a national identity.
Krieghoff became famous in Canada for his depictions of Aboriginal and Francophone life in Quebec. His rural “habitant” scenes portray a vast array of everyday situations in 19th century Quebec society. For example, some of his paintings render scenes of Francophone folk greeting one another, playing cards, or racing sleds. The happy people in these scenes seem oblivious to the harsh landscape that surrounds them. Krieghoff’s depiction of Aboriginal peoples, however, is much less realistic and much more romantic. In these scenes, Aboriginal figures are at the mercy of the Canadian landscape. They camp, hunt, and journey through the land, but are conveyed as mere ornamentation, overwhelmed by nature and its grandeur.
Krieghoff’s work demonstrates the use of brilliant colours, finely tuned gestures and facial expressions, and remarkable attention to detail. His work continues to be recognized today for its historical, social, and artistic aspects. It provides a remarkable representation of one citizen’s attempt to capture his perception of Canada in images. Krieghoff has produced an estimated 1500-1800 paintings and prints, and has become a widely recognized figure in Canadian Art: “There is hardly a Canadian home without some memento of him.”
Krieghoff left Canada to live in Europe from 1863 to 1870. He returned to Québec City for one year before he moved to Chicago to live with his daughter. He died there in 1872.
And I quote:
“Perhaps they were better artists. But they owe a great deal to Krieghoff. Henri Julien, Suzor-Côté, Gagnon, Cullen and even Morrice, all painters of distinction in the late nineteenth century and the first quarter of the twentieth century, were influenced by him. Through Cornelius Krieghoff, the Habitant comes to life, the landscape takes on colour, the winter is a form of national expression freed of its terrors, and painting becomes one with the cultural aspirations of the whole world. Krieghoff was a pioneer in all this.”
-Arthur Lismer, member of The Group of Seven, 1954.