New book highlights important figure in Canadian art history

Henry Daniel Thielcke “has works in museums in the UK, US and Canada, but 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 connoisseurs of Canadian art history may know little or nothing about a man who once played a central role in the development of that country’s early painting.

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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: La vie d’un peintre royal méconnu (Presses de l’Université Laval, 159 pages, $34.95), is a passionate act of reclamation intended to redeem a century and a half of neglect.

For the articulate Quebec City native, White, a longtime journalist and currently a professor of journalism at UQAM, his association with Thielcke began when he learned that David Karel, professor of art history at Université Laval, had been researching Thielcke since 1970 . When Karel died in 2007, he bequeathed his Thielcke documents to White. Although White openly admitted that he was not a historian, he was forced to keep the project going.

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

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

An indication of the challenges White faced is that in the course of his research he came across no fewer than 22 spellings of his subject’s German surname. (It’s pronounced roughly “tilk.”) But he persevered, and when he started posting some of his findings on his blog, they reached some unexpected readers: Descendants of Thielcke in New York, and later another branch of the family tree in New York York Vermont.

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

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A series of trips between the United States and Quebec followed, during which White was provided with priceless artwork and genealogical charts – a crucial step in the research that would continue in the time he was able to spend between his paid work into 2020 .

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

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

Thielcke was born in London – and no less in Buckingham Palace – in 1788 as the son of German immigrants. Growing up, he enjoyed the patronage of King George III, who paid for his art education at the Royal Academy. Thielcke worked productively for a quarter of a century, making portraits, engravings, miniatures and furniture.

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In 1820, in the first instance of what was to become a lifelong pattern, Thielcke left England for Scotland where, as White said, “he fell off the radar.” For ten years he only painted his family. He is known to have worked for Edinburgh Customs for a time.”

Not yet ready to give up his artistic vocation, Thielcke uprooted his family in 1831 and moved to Quebec City, 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 great port, right after New York City.”

Thielcke displayed his lifelong talent for ingratiating himself with the powerful and soon became immersed in the capital’s cultural life.

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“He was able to quickly contact Louis-Joseph Papineau, speaker of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada,” White said. “Papineau gave him a painting studio in the Quebec legislature. He started painting portraits of society’s elite and he started painting religious paintings.”

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

“Thielcke was a Protestant Anglican who didn’t speak French to begin with,” said White, who points out that Quebec City was 40 percent English at the time. “He was perceived as a foreigner.”

A fine example of Thielcke’s flair for portraiture and an indication of his usual clientele is Mrs. William Burns Lindsay (Maria Jones) and Her Son John, painted in Quebec City in 1836.

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“It is believed that Thielcke William Burns painted Lindsay because of their shared family connections in Scotland,” White said. “Lindsay lived in Quebec City and was Secretary of the House of Assembly of Lower Canada. His wife, Maria Jones, was the daughter of Robert Jones, then a Lower Canada MP.”

So the art went well. As far as Thielcke’s character is concerned, it can only be guessed at.

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

On the other hand, White said, “he had many financial problems.” In fact, in 1854 he was caught stealing from the safe of the Literary and Historical Society of Quebec, where he was a member of the board. It was a rash act that may very well have hastened his move from Quebec City to Chicago.

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“It doesn’t look good,” White said of the theft’s uncomfortable 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 met with the great Dutch-Canadian painter Cornelius Krieghoff, his production slowed in the years leading up to his death in 1874. His heyday can be traced to his time in Quebec City.

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

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

Proudly noting that news of the book’s publication has already resulted in the re-emergence of three previously thought-lost Thielcke works – a trend which he hopes will increase if he can obtain an English translation – , White also points out that appreciation of art history has a concentric circle effect and expands our knowledge of the world in which 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 helps us remember where we came from.”

ianmcgillis2@gmail.com

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