Born in Toronto, Ontario, the son of Samuel and Mary Ann (Oliver) Beatty, he was the middle child in a family of nine. He had an early desire to become a professional painter. His father was a sign and house painter and after school John would help his father on various jobs and learned sign-painting in his father’s shop. After his early departure from school he worked for a short period in a firm of engravers as a compromise with his father who wanted him to have a reliable income from a trade, rather than an unreliable one as an artist. His employment was cut short when he was fired for a boyish practical joke. He was then apprenticed by his parents to a rival house painters’ firm (Pat Casey) and finally emerged triumphant with his journeyman’s papers in 1885. The same year he was off to an adventure as a bugler with the 10th Grenadiers to the second Northwest Rebellion.
Following his service with the reserve army, now 18 years old, he became a foreman in a Minneapolis paint shop. He was injured in a plant accident and decided to return home. He then worked for his father once more, while also taking sketching trips with a friend. He married Caroline Cormack in 1890 and for almost a decade worked as a house painter. He became bored with his daily routine and decided to join the newly-formed Toronto Fire Department in 1899. Fires had been previously put out by volunteers. He was employed for the next year as a fireman. He became proficient at sliding down the brass pole during fire drills. He would drop down like a streak of lightning, checking his descent with a full stop half-way or he could bring a man down on his back. His most famous feat however was to slide down the pole head first stopping inches from the floor. People arrived at the station just to watch him do his brass pole drill. While Beatty was fitting in as a fireman, he had not lost sight of his original goal of becoming a full-time artist. He spent all his spare time painting while others at the station played dominoes or checkers. He practised still lifes, and also portraits of various members of the station.
During off-duty hours he rose early in the morning to be at the Toronto waterfront to catch the effects of the sunrise. Later he received formal instruction from professional artists. Throughout his career he was known for his fine still lifes. After a successful solo show in 1900 he applied for six months’ leave to study abroad but his request was turned down so he resigned. By then, he had saved enough money to make the trip. He sailed for Paris with his wife and studied at the Académie Julian under Jean Paul Laurens and Benjamin Constant. For his figure drawing he received four of the monthly prizes awarded by the school. He returned to Toronto and in 1901 opened a studio and taught at the Ontario School of Art and Design. He occasionally attended classes of the Mahlstick Club and later became a member of the Graphic Arts Club. He returned to Europe and revisited: Paris (painted at the Colarossi and Julian academies); London where he studied with E. Borough Johnson at the Chelsea Polytechnic; took sojourns in Holland, Belgium, Italy and Spain (1906-09).
He became greatly influenced by the French landscape painters known as the Barbizons, who lived on the outskirts of the Fontainebleau forest, away from the more expensive lodgings in Paris. The Barbizons were in turn greatly influenced by English landscapist, John Constable. Returning to Toronto in 1909 Beatty taught private classes and continued with his painting. His early landscapes were grey and sombre, characteristic of French and Dutch painting of the traditional school. But he was a pioneer of the Toronto artists in travelling to Northern Ontario and sketching by canoe by 1912. This year he also began teaching at the Ontario College of Art. Many of his landscapes had large skies such as The Evening Cloud of the Northland (1910) or his Between Showers (1913), others about the beauty of the woods like his Morning, Algonquin Park (1914) (all three in the NGC).
A friend of Tom Thomson and A.Y. Jackson, it is most likely that his palette brightened as a result of his association with both artists especially A.Y. Jackson, who had come from Montreal and took occupancy in the Studio Building around the same time as Beatty. With Jackson he was awarded a commission by Canadian Northern Railway to paint scenes in and around construction camps during the laying of tracks through the Rocky Mountains. Just before his entry into the Army he did the stonework for the cairn erected to the memory of Tom Thomson in the fall of 1917. The same year he was appointed official war artist for the Canadian War Memorials, with the honorary rank of captain.
Leaving behind his teaching job at the Ontario College of Art he sailed for the United Kingdom. He painted portraits, army camps, scenes near the front including his large canvas, Ablain St-Nazaire, French seaport at the mouth of the Loire River where British and American expeditionary forces arrived. What he painted in this canvas was not the docks themselves but a panorama of big sky, an enormous mountain in the middle distance, a ruin probably a large church, in front of which roofs of Quonset huts are partially obscured by a long row of green bushes and a series of large trees, bare, splintered by shell fire, reminiscent of the destruction left after a northern Ontario forest fire. Beatty achieved remarkable colour harmony in this work. After his return to Canada he continued to teach at the Ontario College of Art until his death in 1941.
Although he was a good friend of several members of the Group of Seven he had no desire to be part of the Group and remained more within the bounds of traditional painting, achieving equally stunning results with the same subject matter. Like the Group, he sketched on small wooden panels or boards. He is represented in the following collections: NGC, Ott.; AGO, Tor.; OCA, Tor.; HH, U. of T., Tor.; McM. Can. Coll., Kleinb.; AEAC, Queen’s U., Kingston; Can. War. Mus., Ott. and elsewhere. Member: OSA (1910); ARCA (1903), RCA (1913); A&L Club, Tor. (1913-14, Pres. 1915). He died in Toronto at the age of 72.
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