“As an artist he is a humanist realist whose paintings are characterized by a spirit of ordered freedom and technical conservatism. For him, the visible world is the valid point of departure for a work of art. This does not mean that his purpose is to imitate nature, but rather to recreate it, remoulding and harmonizing it to agree with his own idiomatic mannerisms and his own personal concepts. He envisages his world as being inexhaustibly inspiring and meaningful.”
(Charles Comfort, writing about himself, 1974)
Charles Comfort was a commercial artist, landscape and portrait painter, printmaker, muralist, teacher and arts administrator. His watercolour and oil paintings include a number of very powerful, symbolic portraits, as well as ordered landscapes. Comfort held a strong belief in the importance of art in society; he played a significant role in Canada’s War Art program and in the establishment of the Canada Council for the Arts.
Charles Comfort spent the first part of his career working primarily as a commercial artist. From the age of 14, he apprenticed at Brigdens Limited, Winnipeg, and took art classes at high school and the Winnipeg School of Art. He later studied at the New York Art Students League under Robert Henri and Euphrasius Tucker. With Brigdens, he was briefly transferred to Toronto in 1919. There, he joined the Arts and Letters Club, taking life classes and meeting members of the Group of Seven. The Group’s inaugural 1920 exhibition had a profound impact on Comfort’s landscape work.
Returning to Winnipeg, Comfort exhibited his watercolours for the first time in 1922, including in a two-man show at the Winnipeg Art Gallery. He took painting trips to the country and met LeMoine FitzGerald and W. J. Phillips. In 1925, he moved to Toronto, where he met Will Ogilvie and made his first serious attempts at oil painting. The 1927 exhibition of the Société Anonyme at the Art Gallery of Toronto left a strong impression on Comfort, who was especially inspired by Joseph Stella’s futurist Brooklyn Bridge, among others. In 1932, he was commissioned to create his first of many murals, for Toronto’s North American Life Building, and he later taught mural-painting at the Ontario College of Art. In 1933, he met the American Precisionist Charles Sheeler.
In 1936, Comfort obtained a studio next to that of A. Y. Jackson in the celebrated Studio Building. The same year, he was appointed Associate Professor at the University of Toronto to teach historical painting techniques, and later various studio courses; he remained there for 25 years. Comfort served as an official war artist in World War II, contributing an important body of work.
Louise (1927), a portrait of Comfort’s wife, marks the artist’s first major foray into portrait work. The highly simplified, precise forms of Tadoussac (1935) reveal the influence of Sheeler.
One of the organizers of the 1941 Kingston Conference, Comfort was a founding member of the Federation of Canadian Artists and contributed to the 1951 Massey Report, which lead to the founding of the Canada Council. He served on the Board of Directors and numerous committees at the Art Gallery of Toronto, and was Director of the National Gallery of Canada from 1959 until 1965. Comfort was a founding member of the Canadian Society of Graphic Art, Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour, and Canadian Group of Painters, and held executive positions in a number of art organizations. He received an honorary doctorate from Mount Allison University in 1958, and was honoured with the Medaglio al Merito Culturale and Canadian Centennial Medal. He was appointed Officer of the Order of Canada in 1972.
Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada
COMFORT, Charles Fraser
Born in Edinburgh, Scotland, he won first prize in an art competition at the age of eight. His family came to Canada in 1912 and settled in Winnipeg, Manitoba. He started work two years later for a Winnipeg roadpaving company where he was a checker at the company’s manufacturing plant. During his free moments he would sketch subjects from his office window. At 14 years of age he entered a water colour painting in a competition at the Y.M.C.A. which was judged by F.H. Brigden, R.C.A., and won first prize. This led to his employment at Brigden’s Winnipeg Office. In the following years he studied at the Winnipeg School of Art. In 1921 he won Third Prize in a national art competition and, with the money he won, studied at the Art Students’ League in New York under Robert Henri, E. Allen Tucker and Vincent DuMond. He returned to Canada in 1923 and probably about this time became very interested in water colour painting. In 1925 he moved to Toronto where he met many artists and in 1926 became a charter member of the Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour. In 1929 his painting Louise, a portrait of his wife, won honourable mention in the Willingdon Arts Competition and was reproduced in Bertram Brooker’s Yearbook of The Arts in Canada with the following caption, “. . . Mr. Comfort is a Winnipeg artist who came to Toronto a few years ago and has contributed both oils and water colours to exhibitions in many galleries where their refreshing viewpoint has been widely noted”. It was in 1931 that his essay “The Painter and His Model” appeared in the book Open House and was in essence an appeal to the viewer of an abstract, to try and accept the artist who painted it as one who is genuinely expressing an abstract view. This was written at a time when most artists in Canada who did this type of painting were truly concerned with a way of expressing abstract thoughts rather than developing something unique that would “catch on” and prove to be a lucrative venture on the art market. The economic slump of the 1930’s made pursuit of the fine arts almost impossible. It was then that Comfort joined forces with his friend and fellow artist Will Ogilvie, and a third artist named Ayres. Their combined skills of portrait, advertising layout, architectural decoration, and magazine illustration provided enough income for each to devote some time to pure painting. Comfort decorated the North American Life Building in Toronto in 1932 and in his painting, travelled as far east as Nova Scotia, stopping in the vicinity of the Saguenay River where his canvas Tadoussac originated and was completed in 1935 (formerly in the Massey collection, now in NGC). In this painting Comfort reduced his subject, which was the harbour, to its basic geometric form, and the houses into boxlike shapes, the jutting land and approaching roadway, the hills and shoreline, into a series of arcs. It was simplified further by the faint cloud of mist partially concealing the distant horizon of the St. Lawrence. During this period he also started a series of bold water colour portraits which included the well known Young Canadian done in 1932 (Hart House collection), a portrait of Carl Schaefer. This portrait was chosen for exhibit at the Tate Gallery with another by him of Emmanuel Hahn, along with his Tadoussac. On seeing his work, Paul Oppe of the London Mercury had this to say: “. . . Charles Fraser Comfort, whose large portraits in water colour are among the most noticeable pictures in the exhibition, has a neater and more restrained note in his picture of pill-box houses against a wide expanse of sea . . .” Oppe had been very sparing in his praise of the whole show and particularly cool to work by the former members of the Group of Seven. Twelve years later Donald W. Buchanan in his Growth of Canadian Painting recorded Comfort’s outstanding development in the use of water colours for portrait painting. Comfort in the meantime had completed murals for the International Nickel Company of Canada at the Paris Exposition of 1937; a stone frieze for the exterior of the Toronto Stock Exchange, 1937; a stone frieze for the exterior of the Dorchester Street Station, in 20 units symbolizing transportation, 1941; stone low relief for the interior of the Dorchester Street Station in 1942 on an allegory of Canadian life and other themes. The partnership between Comfort and Ogilvie had dissolved in 1936 when Ogilvie was appointed to the staff of the Art Association School in Montreal and Comfort to the Ontario College of Art to teach mural painting. Ayres had assisted Comfort with the International Nickel mural for Paris, in 1937, but little literature is available on what Ayres did after that project. In 1938 Comfort joined the staff of the Department of Fine Art at the University of Toronto, and in 1939 was active with the University’s Officer Training Corps as a cadet officer. While it is indicated above that he was working on murals until 1942 it is also recorded that he was an instructor in infantry weapons this same year. In 1943 he was appointed Senior Official War Artist with the rank of Captain. He served in Italy with the First Canadian Infantry Division and with other units in Europe. In Italy he witnessed many battles beginning at Campobasso in the south, to Florence in the north and painted many scenes of his experiences. He kept a diary of his activities and of things about him from which he later wrote the book Artist At War, a well-written account of the campaign as seen through the eyes of an artist. He did a number of fine paintings which included the large canvas Campobasso (NGC), a scene of Canadian troops and carriers at the foot of the huge hill at Campobasso, known as “Maple Leaf City”; a large canvas reconstructing the landing of the Royal Hamilton Light Infantry on “White Beach” during the Dieppe Raid, with the support of the Calgary Regiment’s Churchill tanks. In this scene Comfort masters every effect on the canvas, from the movement of the aircraft to the holocaust of the exploding shells of the enemy. He returned to civilian life in 1946 leaving the army with the rank of Major. At the University of Toronto he continued to lecture as an associate professor in the Department of Art and Archaeology. He contributed articles to a number of publications including Canadian Art, Canadian Forum, and others. In murals, he created one of the largest in Canada, 64 ft. long and 10 ft. high, for the Toronto Dominion Bank at Granville and Pender Streets in Vancouver, B.C. showing famous discoveries, industry of the province and famous people connected with its development. Orville Fisher, Gordon Dixon, and Barbara Cook (now Mrs. Endres) assisted him on this project. His other murals included one for Addison Hall, the women’s residence for the Toronto General Hospital; one for the Department of Veterans’ Affairs Memorial Building in Ottawa. He was awarded a Canadian Government Overseas Fellowship, 1955-6, to investigate the nature, extent and findings of those engaged in old master paintings technique-research in the Low Countries during the period 1945-55 and gathered material on 17th century Dutch master techniques. In his painting he had probed the realm of abstraction, as Robert Ayre states, “. . . because of a need to understand and cope with the complexities of his time.” In 1959 he had an Honorary Doctor of Laws conferred on him by the Mount Allison University at Sackville, New Brunswick. He was appointed Director of the National Gallery of Canada in 1960, an appointment he held until his retirement in 1965. A number of important exhibitions were held at the Gallery during his term of office including a showing of the Walter P. Chrysler Jr. Art Collection (The Controversial Century 1850-1950) in the fall of 1962. Thousands attended the National Gallery to view the highly educational, controversial and stimulating exhibition. Dr. Comfort’s works can be seen in many public galleries across Canada, including: WAG, Wpg.; LRA&HM, Lond., Ont.; AGO, Tor.; AG Windsor, Ont.; AGH, Hamilton, Ont.; HH, U. of T.; AEAC, Kingst., Ont.; NGC, Ott.; Can. War Mus., Ott.; Owens AG, Mt. Allison U., Sackv., N.B.; and elsewhere. In 1966 he completed two murals for the Nat. Lib. of Canada, Ott., both measuring 35 by 9 ft. Solo shows of his work were held at WAG (1972) and circulated to Windsor, Hamilton and Charlottetown during 1973. Another solo show of drawings from the 1930’s was held at Wallack Galleries, Ott., (1980). Other awards include: Gold Medal for painting and Allied Arts, U. of Alberta (1963); Medaglio al Merito Culturale, Republic of Italy (1963); Centennial Medal (1967); Officer, OC (1972). He died in Ottawa at the age of 94 and was survived by his wife Louise, and two daughters, Ruth Jackson (Ott.) and Anne Andersen (Las Cruces, New Mexico) and their families. His affiliations were: SGA (1919); CSGA (fdr-mbr., 1923); ALCT (1920); CSPWC (fdr-mbr., 1925); Pres. (1950-52); MSA (fdr-mbr., 1925); OSA (1927); CGP (fdr-mbr., 1933) (Pres. 1951-52); ARCA (1942); RCA (1942); PCRA (1957-60); FCA (1942); FRSA (1957); ADCT (1958); hon. mbr. (1959); AEA (hon. mbr. 1958).
Colin S. MacDonald
A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada
Director of Mural Painting, Ontario College of Art, 1935-38
Associate Professor, Dept. of Art & Archaeology, U. of T., 1938-60
Director, National Gallery of Canada, 1960-65
Canadian Officers Training Corps. Infantry Rifle Instructor, 1939-43
Senior War Artist in UK, Italy & Northwest Europe, 1943-46
North American Life Assurance Co., Toronto
Toronto Stock Exchange
Toronto Dominion Bank, Vancouver
Veterans' Affairs Building, Ottawa
Neurological Dept., Toronto General Hospital
National Library & Archives Building, Ottawa Winnipeg Art Gallery
Academy of Medicine, Toronto
Central Station, Montreal
Numerous Portrait Commissions
Royal Canadian Academy
Canadian Society of Painters in Water Colour
Ontario Society of Artists
Fellow, Royal Society of Arts, England
1922 - Winnipeg Art Gallery, Winnipeg
1923 - Richardson Gallery, Winnipeg
1933 - Art Gallery of Toronto, Toronto
1936 - Hart House - University of Toronto, Toronto
1946, 1973 - Arts & Letters Club, Toronto
1949 - Victoria College, Toronto
1967 - Robertson Galleries, Ottawa
1969, 1971 - Laing Gallery, Toronto
1972/73 - Retro. Winnipeg, Windsor, Hamilton
1974, 1979 - Wallack Galleries, Ottawa
1975 - Zwicker's Gallery, Halifax
1977, 1981 - Roberts Gallery, Toronto
1930-31 - American Federation of Arts
1936 - Southern Dominions
1936 - National Gallery of Scotland
1938 - Tate Gallery, London, England
1938 - Chicago Art Institute
1938 - Albright Gallery, Buffalo
1939 - Cleveland Museum of Art
1939 - Detroit Institute of Art
1939 - Toledo Art Institute
1939 - World's Fair, New York
1939 - Milwaukee Art Institute
1944 - Exposition Nationale, Rome
1945 - Stedilijk Museum, Amsterdam
National Gallery of Canada
War Museum of Canada
Art Gallery of Ontario
Art Gallery of Hamilton
Art Gallery of Windsor
London Public Art Gallery
Winnipeg Art Gallery
Hart House, U. of T.
Mount Allison University