Born in Toronto in 1879, Peter Clapham Sheppard was a master draughtsman, lithographer, and consummate painter whose contribution to early twentieth century Canadian art has been forgotten. As a student at the Central School of Art and Design, later instituted as the Ontario College of Art in 1912, Sheppard’s education was steeped in the precepts of the academic tradition taught to him by George Agnew Reid and J. W. Beatty. Indeed, the purity of Sheppard’s early figurative works there attest to this: the ease with which he rendered light, form, and space earned him distinction for which he was awarded the Sir Edmund Walker Scholarship and the Stone Scholarship. The Ontario College of Art continued to reproduce his works in its prospectuses long after his graduation in 1914.
Sheppard’s early works, like those of his peers in Toronto, reflect the various stylistic influences that were imported from Europe from waves of Canadian artists who had studied overseas since the 1870s. Academic painting began to be challenged by the new “modern“ approaches evidenced in the naturalism of the Barbizon School of landscape artists; the monochromes of The Hague School; the tonal harmonies or “arrangements” of James Whistler; and Late-Impressionism. Many of these developments in art were highlighted in the works of artists who formed the Canadian Art Club in Toronto and who exhibited annually there from 1908 to 1915. With the Armory Show of 1913 held in New York City, Late-Impressionism, Post-Impressionism, Cubism, and Futurism entered the zeitgeist of the North American avant-garde.
Even decades after the emergence of modernism and the European models which Sheppard and others emulated during these early years of the twentieth century, audiences here would have witnessed the defiance of tradition in the intense and arbitrary use of colours, strong contours, bold brushwork, and abstracted forms. In Sheppard’s alignment with the New York collective known as the Ashcan School in the 1910s, his choice of the modern city and its common people lived up to the principle of one of modernism’s earliest voices, Charles Baudelaire, who rallied his contemporaries to “capture the gait, glance, and gesture of modern life”.
By 1912, Sheppard, Lawren Harris, and J.E.H. MacDonald are at the foot of Bathurst Street painting the gritty industrial site called The Gasworks. In the next few years, Sheppard will take his modernist ambitions to record the dynamism of the modern cities: Toronto, New York, and Montreal. In his total devotion to the aesthetic of drawing and painting, he will immerse himself as a spectator of the urban experience, create records of his times, and by stopping time, leave us with these beautiful intimations of immortality. The artist rests in peace. His art lives on.
Curator, Peter Clapham Sheppard Collection