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 William Wallace (W.A.) Armstrong  (1822 - 1914)

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Lived/Active: Ontario / Canada/Ireland      Known for: landscape, portrait, still life, marine, and genre painting, photography

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Ad Code: 3
William Wallace Armstrong
from Auction House Records.
On the Kaministiquoia River, Lake Superior
Artwork images are copyright of the artist or assignee
This biography from the Archives of AskART:
William Wallace Armstrong (AKA: William Armstrong) (1) was a painter, photographer, illustrator and educator.  His watercolors of 19th-century frontier life, in a style similar to Paul Kane (2) and George Catlin, are extraordinary first hand images of the Victorian era. Consequently, his works are not only treasured for their aesthetics but, equally for their documentation of life in early Canada.

He was born in Dublin, Ireland; emigrated to Canada in 1851; and died in Toronto, Ontario where he had lived most of his life.

His primary medium was watercolor.  However, there are also works by him in oil, gouache*, ink, ink wash, pencil, pastel, mixed mediums, hand colored etching*, wood engraving* and lithography*.  He, apparently, also worked in collodion wet-plate photography (3); however, few photographs have survived; the author was unable to find an example in any Canadian museum (see City of Toronto Archives below).

His subjects were the Canadian frontier; its landscape, lakes, rivers, forests, the Indians, explorers, military and settlers; particularly in the area around Lake Superior and Lake Huron, northwestern Ontario, a place he visited several times.  He also did paintings of the Canadian prairies and Rocky Mountains; however, he would have done these from other sources as there is no evidence he traveled west of Fort William, present day Thunder Bay (4).  His other subjects included portraits, still life, genre*, Toronto scenes, harbor scenes, yachting (5) and; in conjunction with his first occupation as a surveyor and engineer – mining, agriculture and railroad building activities.

His style was Realism*, distinguished for its attention to detail and topographical accuracy. AskART has some very good illustrations of his work.

Most sources indicate he studied art in Dublin and apprenticed as a civil engineer for Irish and English railway companies (c.1838).  In Canada, he was a partner in the firm of “Armstrong, Beere & Hime Civil Engineers, Draughtsmen and Photographers” (c.1857 – 1864).  He was also employed by the Grand Trunk and other railways until the 1880s, when he took up painting full time. (6)

Armstrong’s teaching career includes Drawing Master at the Toronto Normal School (c.1864 – 1890), and instructor at the University of Toronto (1872 to 1877) (6.1).  Helen Pepall Bradfield notes he also taught at Jarvis Collegiate secondary school (7).

His travels include trips to Sault Ste. Marie, Ontario in 1853; and the Kaministiquia river (empties at Fort William) in 1856 (6); and Fort William, Ontario in 1859, probably in 1867 and in 1870. (4)

He was an associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts* (c.1880 – 1887) and exhibited with them in 1882 and 1885 (8).  He also exhibited at the Exposition Universelle in Paris in 1855 (6); with the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts); and the Dublin Exhibition, both in 1865 (9); and the Ontario Society of Artists* in 1881, 1882 and 1885.

Posthumously, his work was included in the landmark Canadian centennial exhibition, “300 Years of Canadian Art” at the National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa in 1967.

His works are avidly collected.  They are also in numerous public collections.  According to the Canadian Heritage Information Network* there are 62 William Armstrong works in museums across Canada.  They include the Agnes Etherington Art Centre (Kingston, Ontario), the Art Gallery of Hamilton (Ontario), the Art Gallery of Ontario (Toronto), the Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (Halifax), the Mendel Art Gallery (Saskatoon, Saskatchewan), the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the Museum of Quebec (Quebec City), the Mackenzie Art Gallery (Regina, Saskatchewan), Museum London (Ontario), The Market Gallery (Toronto), the Glenbow Museum (Calgary, Alberta), the Beaverbrook Art Gallery (Fredericton, N.B.), the Canadian War Museum (Ottawa) and the National Gallery of Canada (Ottawa).

The National Archives of Canada houses an additional 47 William Armstrong works as illustration components of 6 different collections.  This includes a total of 29 watercolors, 16 prints (lithographs, etchings, woodcuts, and wood engravings) and 2 photographs of paintings. It also contains “A portfolio of 25 photographic prints taken by the Toronto photography company Armstrong, Beere & Hime between November 1856 and spring 1857 for the city of Toronto.” It notes there are additional works in the Royal Ontario Museum, Toronto and the Peabody Museum of Archaeology and Ethnography, Harvard University. (6)

Examples of Armstrong’s work as an illustrator can be seen in the Canadian Illustrated News story of 1870 covering the Red River Rebellion. (9)

Examples of photos taken by the firm of Armstrong, Beere & Hime for the city of Toronto can be seen in the City of Toronto Archives. (10)

As an important Canadian artist his work is illustrated and discussed in many books about Canadian art history and Canadian history.  There is also the monograph Early Days on the Great Lakes: the Art of William Armstrong (1971), by Henry C. Campbell (see AskART book references).

 
Footnotes:

(1) Apparently there has been some confusion between two artists with the initials W.W. Armstrong; the following was found in an auction catalogue description for a painting by William Weaver Armstrong (see AskART):  “The work of William Weaver Armstrong has long been confused with that of William Wallace Armstrong (1812 – 1915 [sic]).  The California art historian Edan M. Hughes established the distinctions between the two artists in 1985.  William Wallace Armstrong was a Canadian artist who painted landscapes of the Great Lakes region, railway subjects, and Native Americans.  He never visited or painted California, and William Weaver Armstrong never left California.

William Wallace Armstrong painted exclusively in pastel and watercolor, and William Weaver Armstrong painted exclusively in oil.  William Wallace Armstrong signed his paintings "Armstrong" or "W. Armstrong" or with the initials "W" and "A" interlaced.  William Weaver Armstrong signed his paintings "W.W. Armstrong" in printed block letters.  As a consequence of this confusion, works now known to have been painted by the Californian William Weaver Armstrong were originally credited to the Canadian William Wallace Armstrong. This knowledge considerably expands the oeuvre of William Weaver Armstrong and the collections in which his scenic California landscapes are represented.  Armstrong died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of forty-four.”  SOURCE: Jacksons Auction Catalogue for auction dated November 29, 2000. Lot #574 WILLIAM WEAVER ARMSTRONG (American 1862 – 1906). http://www.jacksonsauction.com/NOV29-302000/Pages/Lots%20562-618.htm.

(2) All artists mentioned in this biography have their own pages in AskART.

(3.1) Source: James Marsh, The Canadian Encyclopedia (1985) (see AskART book references).

(3.2) Wet Plate – the name given to a process invented by Frederick Scott Archer of England in 1851.  Widely used to produce negatives but also employed in a modified form to produce positives. As a negative process, a piece of clear glass is coated with a very thin layer of iodized collodion (made from gun-cotton [nitrocellulose] dissolved in ether and alcohol, mixed with potassium iodide).  The coated plate is dipped in a silver solution in the darkroom which makes it light-sensitive. After this, the plate must be immediately exposed in a camera. The exposure needs to be completed before the chemicals on the plate have time to dry out – hence the name of the process. After development and fixing, the negative can be printed on any material. Most wet plate negatives, however, were used to make prints on albumen paper (see AskART glossary).  Source: The American Museum of Photography.

(4) Source: William Armstrong, 1822 – 1914 Artist and Engineer (1998) by Thorold J. Tronrud, Ph.D; Thunder Bay Historical Museum Society (online) http://www.thunderbaymuseum.com/armstrong.htm.

Archives Canada notes, “he accompanied the Wolsely expedition to the Canadian West in 1870 [to put down the Riel Red River Rebellion in Manitoba].” But, adds that, “His earlier views of the Canadian West were probably copied after William Napier, H. L. Hime, John Palliser, and John Fleming.”  Source: Archives Canada. http://www.archivescanada.ca/english/search/BasicSearch.asp.

(5) He was one of the founders of the Royal Canadian Yacht Club.  Source: The CanadaSite.com http://www.goldiproductions.com/thecanadasite/art/art16a_armstrong1.html.

(6) Source: Archives Canada. http://www.archivescanada.ca/english/search/BasicSearch.asp.

(6.1) These are Archives Canada dates (see link above), the City of Toronto Archives has his dates at the Normal School as 1871 to 1897. http://www.toronto.ca/archives/earliest_4_whowere.htm.

(7) Source: Art Gallery of Ontario: the Canadian Collection (1970), by Helen Pepall Bradfield (see AskART book references).

(8) Source: The Collector's Dictionary of Canadian Artists at Auction (2001), by Anthony R. Westbridge and Diana L. Bodnar (see AskART book references).

(9) Source: According to J. Russell Harper, Painting in Canada: A History (see AskART book references), only photographs of his paintings were sent to the Dublin Exhibition.

(10) Source: City of Toronto Archives http://www.toronto.ca/archives/earliest_3_ab&h.htm.

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see AskART.com Glossary http://www.askart.com/AskART/lists/Art_Definition.aspx.

Prepared and contributed by M.D. Silverbrooke.

 

 

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
Apparently there has been some confusion between two artists with the initials W.W. Armstrong. The following information was found in an auction catalogue description for a painting by William Weaver Armstrong (see AskART):

“The work of William Weaver Armstrong has long been confused with that of William Wallace Armstrong (1812 – 1915 [sic]).  The California art historian Edan M. Hughes established the distinctions between the two artists in 1985.  William Wallace Armstrong was a Canadian artist who painted landscapes of the Great Lakes region, railway subjects, and Native Americans.  He never visited or painted California, and William Weaver Armstrong never left California.

William Wallace Armstrong painted exclusively in pastel and watercolor, and William Weaver Armstrong painted exclusively in oil.  William Wallace Armstrong signed his paintings "Armstrong" or "W. Armstrong" or with the initials "W" and "A" interlaced.  William Weaver Armstrong signed his paintings "W.W. Armstrong" in printed block letters.

As a consequence of this confusion, works now known to have been painted by the Californian William Weaver Armstrong were originally credited to the Canadian William Wallace Armstrong.  This knowledge considerably expands the oeuvre of William Weaver Armstrong and the collections in which his scenic California landscapes are represented.

Armstrong died of tuberculosis in 1906 at the age of forty-four.”

SOURCE: Jacksons Auction Catalogue for auction dated November 29, 2000. Lot #574 WILLIAM WEAVER ARMSTRONG (American 1862 – 1906). http://www.jacksonsauction.com/NOV29-302000/Pages/Lots%20562-618.htm.

Submitted by M.D. Silverbrooke, Art Historian and Collector from West Vancouver, British Columbia.

** If you discover credit omissions or have additional information to add, please let us know at registrar@AskART.com.
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