New book shines a light on important figure in Canadian art history

Henry Daniel Thielcke “has works in museums in Britain, the US and Canada, yet he was still this mysterious figure,” says UQAM journalism professor and author Patrick White.

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Never heard of Henry Daniel Thielcke? You’re not alone. Even adepts of Canadian art history may know little or nothing about a man who once had a central role in the development of this country’s early painting.

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“He was an important figure, but he fell into the cracks,” said Patrick White from his Rosemont home. White’s new book, Henry Daniel Thielcke: La vie d’un peintre royal méconnu (Presses de l’Université Laval, 159 pages, $34.95), is a passionate act of reclamation that looks set to redress a century and a half of neglect.

For voluble Quebec City native White, a longtime journalist and currently professor of journalism at UQAM, the Thielcke connection began when he learned that David Karel, an art history professor at Université Laval, had been researching Thielcke since 1970. When Karel died in 2007, he bequeathed his Thielcke documents to White. Despite candidly admitting to not being a historian, White was compelled to keep the project going.

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“I felt I had a duty of remembrance,” said White, for whom that duty applied not only to his late friend, but to his subject.

“Here was this painter who has works in museums in Britain, the US and Canada, yet he was still this mysterious figure. There were so many holes in the story.”

An indication of the challenges White faced can be gleaned from the fact that, in the course of his research, he came across no fewer than 22 spellings of his subject’s German surname. (It’s roughly pronounced “tilk.”) But he persevered, and when he began to place some of his findings on his blog, they reached some unanticipated 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,” said White.

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A series of trips between the US and Quebec ensued, during which White was provided with invaluable artworks and genealogical charts — a crucial leg-up in the research that was to continue, in the time he could carve out between his paid work, until 2020 .

“When COVID-19 happened, I knew the time for procrastination was over,” he said. “The research was already done, so the writing (of 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 — in Buckingham Palace, no less — Thielcke was the son of German immigrants. Growing up, he enjoyed the patronage of King George III, who paid for his art training at the Royal Academy. For a quarter-century, Thielcke worked prolifically, producing portraits, engravings, miniatures and furniture.

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In 1820, in the first instance of what would become a lifelong pattern, Thielcke left England for Scotland, where, said White, “he fell off the radar. For 10 years, all he painted was his family. It’s known that, for a time, he worked for the customs office in Edinburgh.”

Not yet prepared to abandon his artistic vocation, Thielcke uprooted his family in 1831 and moved to Quebec City, 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 art scene,” said White. “There were six newspapers. And it was a great port, second only to New York City.”

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

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

Thielcke also found himself in a public feud with Antoine Plamondon, the leading religious painter of the day, 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 the beginning,” said White, who points out that Quebec City was 40 per cent English at the time. “He was perceived as a foreigner.”

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

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“It is believed that Thielcke painted William Burns Lindsay because of their common family connections in Scotland,” said White. “Lindsay lived in Quebec City and was clerk of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada. His wife Maria Jones was the daughter of Robert Jones, a Member of Parliament in Lower Canada at the time.”

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

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

Then again, said White, “he had a lot of financial problems.” Indeed, in 1854 he was caught stealing from the safe of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, where he served on the board. It was an ill-considered act that may well have precipitated his move from Quebec City to Chicago.

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“That doesn’t look good,” White said of the theft’s awkward presence 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 down in the years preceding his death in 1874. His peak period can be pinpointed to his time in Quebec City.

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

UQAM professor and author Patrick White.
UQAM professor and author Patrick White. Photo by UQAM

Noting proudly that word of the book’s publication has already led to the surfacing of three Thielcke works hitherto thought lost — a trend he hopes will increase if he can secure an English translation — White also points circle out that an appreciation of art history has a concentric effect, enhancing our knowledge of the world where that art was created.

“We have a foggy vision of our own history in this country,” he said. “I like to think that a book like this one helps remind us where we come from.”

ianmcgillis2@gmail.com

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