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Brymner, William
Self-portrait
1881

Brymner emigrated from Scotland with his family to Melbourne, in Canada East before he turned the age of two. His mother and father encouraged their son’s artistic talents. After apprenticing in architecture for some years, Brymner travelled to Paris in 1878, where he decided to become an artist and received sound academic training at the Académie Julian, under Tony Robert-Fleury (1837-1911) and William Bouguereau (1825-1905). The Académie stressed the foundational importance of good draughtsmanship; students developed their skills by first drawing from plaster casts, working their way up to a living nude model. Inspired by the Barbizon School and Impressionist artists, Brymner painted en plein air in the countryside of France, England and Belgium during breaks from school as he would continue to do when he returned to Canada.

When Canadian artist William Brymner drew his only known Self-portrait in March 1881, he had over two years of studying at the Académie Julian in Paris behind him. In 1880, he had returned to Ottawa, where his family resided (his father, Douglas Brymner, was the Dominion Archivist), to take up the position as head of the school of the Art Association of Canada, which later became the Art Association of Ottawa. At first, Brymner was reluctant to teach, hoping to make his living solely as an artist. When in September 1879, his father had sent him a prospectus for the Art Association of Canada school, Brymner claimed to have “a kind of horror of teaching.” The following year, he changed his mind and taught at the Ottawa art school in the fall and winter terms of 1880-1881. This self-portrait dates from that period.

At age twenty-five, Brymner is at the start of a successful career as both an artist and a teacher. Self-portrait is a testament to his French academic training, with its emphasis on good draughtsmanship and drawing from the living model. Notable is Brymner’s careful use of the charcoal as a point to delineate his features accurately, as his Académie Julian teacher William-Adolphe Bouguereau would have encouraged. The face, in shadow, suggests an introspective side of this generally sociable artist. Brymner would return to Paris for further study until, in 1886, he accepted the position as director of the Art Association of Montreal school, where he taught for thirty-five years. Brymner is one of the most renowned and influential art teachers in the history of Canadian art.

 
Brymner, William
Greenock, Scotland, 1855-Wallasey, England, 1925
Self-portrait
1881
Charcoal on paper
overall: 47.8 cm x 32.4 cm
Gift of Mr. and Mrs. Stewart Brymner Dawson, 2010
53-052

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