Lucius O’Brien

Lucius O’Brien, Painter and first President of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1880. Came to Toronto from Shanty Bay, Ontario in 1844 to attend Upper Canada College

“Toronto is the best art centre in Canada at present and there are more artists here than anywhere else.”

– Lucius O’Brien in a letter to Robert Harris, 1879

(Archives of Ontario)

Lucius O’Brien was a prominent nineteenth-century artist and educator who was instrumental in establishing many of the major artistic and cultural institutions in Canada. His significant body of work focused on waterways and landscapes, expressing a nineteenth-century nationalism that promoted Canada’s boundless natural wealth. (1)

Born to a prominent family, O’Brien first came to Toronto in 1844 to attend Upper Canada College. Although he began practicing civil engineering after graduation, by the 1850s he was exhibiting and teaching art and preparing architectural drawings for a number of Toronto engravers and lithographers. In 1857 he married and moved to Orillia where he ran a family quarry and general store, and became a local politician. However, a trip to Europe in the late 1860s seemed to rekindle his passion for art, and by 1870 he had become heavily involved in the Toronto art scene. (2)

O’Brien joined the Ontario Society of Artists, where he served as Vice President from 1874 to 1880. During his leadership, the Society established the Ontario School of Art where he taught watercolour and helped to manage the school. In 1880 the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was created and O’Brien was appointed the school’s first President. (3) The Academy was instrumental in creating a national art gallery, which would become the National Gallery of Canada. O’Brien’s own “Sunrise on the Saguenay” was the highlight of the first exhibition, and has been a prominent feature of the collection ever since. (4)

Sunrise on the Saguenay, 1880. Oil on Canvas. (National Gallery of Canada)

By the 1880s O’Brien’s work had begun to define a budding Canadian nationalism and communicate a distinctly Canadian national identity. He was asked by George Munro Grant to serve as Art Editor for Picturesque Canada, a journal that highlighted romantic images of Canada and promoted nationalism rooted in Canada’s natural beauty. (5)O’Brien became the major Canadian art contributor for the journal which ran until 1884. In 1886 O’Brien was selected to travel west on the Canadian Pacific Railway (CPR) to promote tourism to the newly accessible Canadian Rockies and west coast. (6) The paintings he produced were finely detailed while simultaneously capturing the grand scale of the frontier landscape.

A British Columbian Forest, 1888. Watercolour over graphite (National Gallery of Canada)

Although he never studied formal painting, O’Brien’s finely detailed watercolour and oil paintings demonstrated great skill and an understanding of British artistic trends and standards of landscape painting. (7) His work often conveyed a romantic interpretation of the harmonious relationship between humans and nature. His use of light and shadow, and the precision and beauty of his paintings have been compared to the early work of J.M.W. Turner. (8) His substantial collection of work and the artistic institutions he helped to establish have shaped the development of arts in Canada.


(1)Dennis R. Reid. “O’Brien, Lucius Richard”, Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online. [accessed on May 9, 2010] (2)Ibid.
(4)”Lucius R O’Brien”, Cybermuse: National Gallery of Canada. [accessed on Jaunary 29, 2015}
(5)Ellen Ramsay, “Picturing the Picturesque: Lucius O’Brien’s Sunries on the Saguenay” in Paul Simpson-Housley and Glen Norcliffe, A Few Acres of Snow: literary and artistic images of Canada. (Toronto: Dundurn Press, 1992), 167.
(6)Reid, “O’Brien, Lucius Richard” Dictionary of Canadian Biography Online.


This entry was posted in Toronto's Stories. Bookmark the permalink.