For a discussion of the art of indigenous peoples of Canada, see North American Native art.
Among the outstanding art forms of early colonial Canada was French-Canadian wood carving, chiefly figures of saints and retables for the churches. This art flourished from 1675 (when Bishop Laval established a school of arts and crafts near Quebec) until c.1850. The art reached its height after the separation from France when, freed from the French Renaissance tradition, it developed a local character beautifully exemplified in such work as that in the Church of the Holy Family on Orléans Island and in the Provincial Museum at Quebec. The two great Quebec families of carvers were the Levasseurs (18th cent.) and the Baillairgés (19th cent.).
The colonial period also produced fine embroidery (examples are kept at the Ursuline convent, Quebec) and several outstanding portraits executed in a naive folk-art style. Before 1880 most of the only other paintings and drawings produced in Canada were those by the colonial topographers, many of them English army officers. Most of this work is purely documentary.
Paul Kane, who painted Native Americans, and Cornelius Krieghoff, who depicted the life of the settlers, were the earliest genre painters. Thomas Davies produced vibrant landscapes in watercolor in the second half of the 18th cent. J. A. Fraser, known for his scenes of the Rockies, was instrumental in founding the Ontario College of Art at Toronto in 1875. Five years later the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (at Montreal) and the National Gallery of Canada (at Ottawa) were founded. Since 1910 the National Gallery has played an active part in Canadian life through its traveling exhibits. Its collection is the finest in Canada. Today there are art schools and galleries in all the major Canadian cities.
In the late 19th cent. the outstanding artists were the landscapists Daniel Fowler, F. M. Bell-Smith, and Robert Gagen; the portrait painters Robert Harris, Antoine Palamondon, and Théophile Hamel; and two great cartoonists, J. W. Bengough and Henri Julien. They were followed by a number of celebrated painters, including George A. Reid, Franklin Brownell, Florence Carlyle, F. McG. Knowles, Horatio Walker, M. A. de Foy Suzor-Côté, William Brymner, Maurice Cullen, and Tom Thomson. J. W. Morrice, who worked chiefly outside Canada, is perhaps the most celebrated of Canadian landscapists.
In 1920 Franklin Carmichael, Lawren Harris, A. Y. Jackson, Franz H. Johnston, Arthur Lismer, J. E. H. MacDonald, and F. Horsman Varley formed the Group of Seven, dedicated to painting the Canadian landscape. Traveling and working all over the dominion, they did much to awaken the interest of the country at large. Their approach, which emphasized flat, strongly colored design, tended toward a poster style. The cultural center of the Seven was Toronto. In Montreal toward the end of World War II a new, radical group was formed, including Alfred Pellan, John Lyman, P. E. Borduas, and J. P. Riopelle. They evolved the automatiste movement, influenced by Matisse, Picasso, and surrealism.
Other major painters, working in a wide variety of styles, include David Milne, Emily Carr, Pegi Nicol MacLeod, B. C. Binning, J. L. Shadbolt, and Harold Town. In the late 1960s the op art movement flourished in Montreal. Canadian painters currently at work employ a variety of postmodern styles and cannot be grouped as a school.
After the decline of wood carving, little sculpture was produced until 1900. Philippe Hébert, Suzor-Côté, Alfred Laliberté, Tait McKenzie, and Walter Allward became well-established sculptors. Among the later sculptors, Emanuel Hahn, Louis Archambault, Elizabeth Wyn Wood, and Henri Hébert are notable. The French Canadians have an important tradition in such decorative arts and crafts as metalworking and rug hooking. In the graphic arts Clarence Gagnon, W. J. Phillips, and Albert Dumouchel are considered among the foremost Canadian print makers of the 20th cent.
Canadian architecture adheres in the main to European and American trends, especially in the planning of public buildings. From the 18th to the 20th cent., French Renaissance, English Georgian, Neoclassical, and Gothic revival designs were successively dominant. A notable example of Gothic revival is found in the buildings of Parliament Hill, Ottawa (begun 1859), by Thomas Fuller and others. The Canadian Centre for Architecture (Montreal), a modern archive and research center created by Phyllis Lambert, opened in 1989. Based on the ideas of H. H. Richardson, well-known structures in the château style are the Château Frontenac (1890), Quebec City, and the Banff Springs Hotel (1913), Banff, Alberta.
Major modern buildings include the Electrical Building and Civic Auditorium, Vancouver, British Columbia, and the Shakespeare Festival Theatre, Stratford, Ontario. Church and domestic architecture in Canada have consistently shown originality. Particularly in Quebec during the colonial period, charming rural stone houses and churches were developed—typically low and rectangular, with steep pitched roofs and uptilting eaves. Moshe Safdie's remarkable "Habitat," a dynamic and original approach to housing, was erected in Montreal for Expo '67. Arthur Erickson is among the best-known of contemporary Canadian architects.
See studies on Canadian art by J. R. Harper (1966 and 1972) and W. Townsend, ed. (1970); on architecture by P. Mayrand and J. Bland (1971); D. Reid, A Concise History of Canadian Painting (1974); D. G. Burnett, Contemporary Canadian Art (1983); L. Whiteson, Modern Canadian Architecture (1983).
Prior to 200 Christians may have been constrained by their position as a persecuted group from producing durable works of art. Since Christianity was largely a religion of lower classes in this period, the lack of surviving art may reflect a lack of funds for patronage. The Old Testament restrictions against the production of graven (an idol or fetish carved in wood or stone) images may also have constrained Christians from producing art. It is also possible that Christians purchased art using pagan iconography, but gave it Christian meanings. If this happened, "Christian" art would not be immediately recognizable as such.
Early Christians used the same artistic media as the surrounding pagan culture. These media included fresco, mosaics, sculpture, and manuscript illumination. Early Christian art not only used Roman forms, it also used Roman styles. Late classical style included a proportional portrayal of the human body and impressionistic presentation of space. Late classical style is seen in early Christian frescos, such as those in the catacombs of Rome.
Early Christians adapted Roman motifs and gave new meanings to what had been pagan symbols. Among the motifs adopted were the peacock, grapevines, and the good shepherd. Early Christians also developed their own iconography, for example such symbols as the fish (ikhthus), were not borrowed from pagan iconography.
After about the year 200 Christian art must be broken into two periods: before and after the Edict of Milan in 313.
During the persecution of Christians under the Roman Empire, Christian art was necessarily and deliberately furtive and ambiguous, using imagery that was shared with pagan culture but had a special meaning for Christians. The earliest surviving Christian art comes from the late 2nd to early 4th centuries on the walls of Christian tombs in the catacombs of Rome, although from literary evidence there may well have been panel icons which, like almost all classical painting, have disappeared. Initially Jesus was represented indirectly by pictogram symbols such as the Ichthys (fish), peacock, Lamb of God, or an anchor (the Labarum or Chi-Rho was a later development). Later personified symbols were used, including Jonah, whose three days in the belly of the whale pre-figured the interval between Christ's death and Resurrection, Daniel in the lion's den, or Orpheus charming the animals. The image of "The Good Shepherd", a beardless youth in pastoral scenes collecting sheep, was the commonest of these images, and was probably not understood as a portrait of the historical Jesus.
The dove is a symbol of peace and purity. It can be found with a halo or celestial light. In one of the earliest known Trinitarian images, 'the Throne of God as a Trinitarian image' (a marble relief carved c. 400 CE in the collection of the Prussian Cultural Heritage Foundation), the dove represents the Spirit. It is flying above an empty throne representing God the Father, in the throne are a chlamys (cloak) and diadem representing the Son.
The fish is used as a symbol for Jesus Christ. It represents Jesus' last supper as well as water used to baptize Christians. In Greek, the word 'fish' provides the initials of the title "Jesus Christ Son of God Saviour" and was used as a rebus for Christ's name.
The lamb symbolizes Jesus' sacrifice or Christians when there are several.
The figure of the Good Shepherd resembles earlier shepherd figures in pagan Classical art that represent benevolence and philanthropy. Additional meaning would have been ascribed to the figure by early Christian viewers in the context of Christ's phrase "I am the shepherd: the good shepherd giveth his life for the sheep," and St John the Baptist's description of Christ as "the Lamb of God, which taketh away the sins of the world."
The Chi-Rho monogram, XP, apparently first used by Constantine I, consists of the first two characters of the name 'Christos' in Greek. It was popular in the period after Christianity emerged into the open.
The Cross symbolizes Jesus' crucifixion on a cross which was not represented explicitly for several centuries, possibly because crucifixion was a punishment meted out to common criminals.
Main article: Christianising the basilica in Basilica
In the 4th century, Christians were prepared to build larger and more handsome edifices for worship than the furtive meeting places they had been using. Architectural formulas for temples were unsuitable, not simply for their pagan associations, but because pagan cult and sacrifices occurred outdoors under the open sky in the sight of the gods, with the temple, housing the cult figures and the treasury, as a backdrop. The usable model at hand, when Emperor Constantine I wanted to memorialize his imperial piety, was the familiar conventional architecture of the basilicas. These had a center nave with one aisle at each side and an apse at one end: on this raised platform sat the bishop and priests.