New book sheds light on an important figure in Canadian art history

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Henry Daniel Thielcke “has works in museums in Britain, the United States and Canada, but he was always this mysterious figure,” says Patrick White, a journalism professor at UQAM and author.

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Have you ever heard of Henry Daniel Thielcke? You’re not alone. Even followers of Canadian art history may know little or nothing about a man who played a central role in the development of early painting in this country.

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“He was an important figure, but he fell through the cracks,” Patrick White said from his Rosemont home. White’s new book, Henry Daniel Thielcke: The Life of an Unrecognized Royal Painter (Presses de l’Université Laval, 159 pages, $34.95), is a passionate act of recovery that sets out to redress a century and a half of neglect.

For the talkative Quebec White native, a longtime journalist and current journalism professor at UQAM, the Thielcke connection began when he learned that David Karel, a professor of art history at Université Laval, had been researching Thielcke since 1970. When Karel died in 2007, he bequeathed his Thielcke papers to White. Although he candidly admits that he is not a historian, White was compelled to pursue the project.

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“I felt I had a duty to remember,” said White, who said that duty applied not just to his late friend, but about him.

“Here is this painter who has works in museums in Britain, the United States and Canada, but he was always this mysterious figure. There were so many holes in the story.

An indication of the challenges White faced can be drawn from the fact that, during his research, he encountered no less than 22 spellings of his subject’s German surname. (It’s roughly pronounced “tilk.”) But he persevered, and when he began posting some of his findings on his blog, they reached unexpected readers: descendants of Thielcke in New York and, later, , another branch of the family tree in Vermont.

“They were fascinated to hear about their great-great-great-grandfather,” White said.

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A series of trips between the United States and Quebec ensued, during which White received priceless artwork and genealogical charts – a crucial step in the research that was to continue, in the time he could. carve out between his paid work, until 2020.

“When COVID-19 arrived, I knew the time for procrastination was over,” he said. “The research was already done, so writing (the book) only took three weeks.”

A portrait by Henry Daniel Thielcke of the artist and his wife, Rebecca, painted in 1857 in Chicago.
A portrait by Henry Daniel Thielcke of the artist and his wife, Rebecca, painted in 1857 in Chicago. Image courtesy of the Thielcke family.

Born in 1788 in London — at Buckingham Palace, no less — Thielcke was the son of German immigrants. Growing up, he enjoyed the patronage of King George III, who funded his artistic training at the Royal Academy. For a quarter of a century Thielcke worked prolifically, producing portraits, prints, miniatures and furniture.

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In 1820, in the first instance of what was to become a permanent pattern, Thielcke left England for Scotland, where, says White, “he fell off the radar. For 10 years, he only painted his family. It is known that for a time he worked for the Edinburgh Customs Office.

Not yet ready to give up his artistic vocation, Thielcke uprooted his family in 1831 and settled in Quebec, which was then the capital of Lower Canada. It was the right place at the right time.

“It was a vibrant place, with a thriving arts scene,” White said. “There were six newspapers. And it was a big port, just behind New York.

Demonstrating a lifelong gift for ingratiating himself with the powerful, Thielcke was soon immersed in the cultural life of the capital.

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“He was able to communicate quickly with Louis-Joseph Papineau, who was the Speaker of the Lower Canada House of Assembly,” White said. “Papineau gave him a painting studio at the Quebec legislature. He started doing portraits of the elite of society, and he started doing religious paintings.

Thielcke also found himself in a public feud with Antoine Plamondon, the leading religious painter of the time, who went out of his way to disparage a man he saw as a professional rival.

“Thielcke was a Protestant Anglican who didn’t speak French at first,” said White, who points out that Quebec City was 40% English-speaking at the time. “He was seen as an outsider.

A fine example of Thielcke’s flair for portraiture, and an indication of his usual clientele, can be seen in the work Mrs. William Burns Lindsay (Maria Jones) and her son John, made in Quebec in 1836.

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“Thielcke is believed to have painted William Burns Lindsay because of their shared family ties in Scotland,” White said. “Lindsay lived in Quebec and was clerk of the Lower Canada House of Assembly. His wife Maria Jones was the daughter of Robert Jones, Member of Parliament for Lower Canada at the time.

So the art was fine. As for Thielcke’s character, it can only be inferred.

“We know he was resilient and nomadic,” White said. “He had seven children and was faithful to his wife.”

Then again, White said, “he was in a lot of financial trouble.” Indeed, in 1854, he was caught stealing the safe of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, of which he sat on the board of directors. It was a rash act that may have precipitated his move from Quebec to Chicago.

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“That doesn’t look good,” White said of the awkward presence of theft in Thielcke’s biography. “But even after that he did a portrait of the wife of a friend of Abraham Lincoln. So he was still connected and using his royal title.

In Chicago, where Thielcke may have crossed paths with the great Dutch-Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff, his output slowed in the years before his death in 1874. Its peak can be attributed to his time in Quebec.

“His significance is that he brought the British style of portraiture (to North America),” White said.

Professor at UQAM and author Patrick White.
Professor at UQAM and author Patrick White. Photo by UQAM

Proudly noting that news of the book’s publication has already led to the revamping of three hitherto lost works by Thielcke – a trend he hopes will increase if he can secure an English translation – White also points out that an appreciation of art history has a concentric circle effect, enhancing our knowledge of the world where that art was created.

“We have a blurry view of our own history in this country,” he said. “I like to think a book like this helps us remember where we come from.”

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