His paintings are in the collections of Canada’s most respected galleries, but Peter Clapham Sheppard’s name remains unknown to most Canadians. A figurative artist and contemporary of the Group of Seven, Sheppard’s legacy as one of Canada’s finest 20th century painters has long been overlooked and overshadowed.
With the recent record-setting sale of a Sheppard painting and a new book, Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work, the artist’s legacy as one of Canada’s forgotten Masters is finally being recognized.
The following is an excerpt from Peter Clapham Sheppard: His Life and Work, available wherever art books are sold.
Peter Clapham Sheppard and the Group of Seven
Among the many circumstances that give a context for Sheppard’s life, the most important for him and for his cohort of artists working in Toronto particularly was the Group of Seven. The artists who formed and were members of this collective cast a very long shadow over the lives and art of their contemporaries in ways that were certainly not appreciated at the time of their emergence. An unknown consequence of their ascent and radiance in the cultural firmament of post–World War I Toronto is that, over the succeeding decades and into the new millennium, they made many of their contemporaries vanish from public consciousness. This was Sheppard’s unfortunate fate. Although he continued to paint in a style and mode that rivalled some of his peers’ in the group, for a complex set of reasons his light dimmed next to theirs, and his expressive skills and innovations were diminished and underappreciated.
Why did this occur? On the one hand it might well have been the result of being in or out of a club. A select group might have the patina of being open and democratic, but the truth is that a group by definition is exclusionary. Insiders were a phalanx that valued privileged inclusion, but were protective of their corporate status. You were let in to the company. You did not join it. The Group of Seven modelled itself as a band of like-minded individuals whose aims were to define a national school of art, and this academy was based almost exclusively on interpreting the landscape, urban and wilderness.
The institutional heft that the group received contributed to their ubiquitous presence in the cultural landscape of the third decade of the 20th century, and it is against this backdrop that Sheppard plied his trade. In retrospect, a key reason Sheppard was on the outside looking in at the group’s efforts is that his artistic intentions did not align with theirs. He did not seek out or describe nationalistic symbols or utopias in the northern landscape. His was a very different source of inspiration, articulated in a form of urban pastoral and in scenes of economic growth embodied in civil engineering projects and in the rail yards. Rather than identifying with the Group of Seven, Sheppard saw his art as better aligned with the two groups of contemporary American painters, the Eight and the Ashcan School . . .
Sheppard was primarily a figurative artist. While landscape did feature in his paintings of the late 1910s, it was treated more as a convenient means for developing painterly idioms independent of subject matter — as if the landscape merely served as a visual anchor for his forays into expressive experiments with colour. His wide brushstroke, his subtle use of close colour harmonies and complements betray an artist pushing convention and adapting the landscape subject, making it submit to the requirement of being a visual touchstone that supported an impulse to explore the purely expressive properties of colour.