“Alexander Henderson. Art and Nature”: A Quebec Under the Weather and Snow

On the fragile albumin paper that stands along McCord’s rooms, a story about Quebec is revealed: the one, in black and white, of wooden houses erected in the streets of Saguenay in the 19th.e century, that of Innu, who lived in tents near Mingan, and that of ice-cutting activities on Île Sainte-Hélène, near Montreal.

These images of Alexander Henderson, for which the McCord Museum devotes the retrospective alexander Henderson. art and nature, both historians and photographers cherish them. And yet the man remains largely unknown to the general public.

Arriving in Montreal from Scotland with his new wife in 1855, this trained accountant from the Scottish lower middle class found the perfect place to practice his art. Free of happiness, passionate about hunting and fishing, he photographed especially Quebec, but also Canada, which he wanted.

It was in the company of another, better known Scottish photographer, William Notman, that Henderson learned the basics of photography in Montreal. While Notman specialized in portraits, Henderson was passionate about landscapes, especially winter landscapes, which he reproduced in all their glory. The two men belong to the small group of which only a French Canadian was a member, who founded the Art Association of Montreal, which has since become the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts.

He photographs in a European way, where he mixes romance and the picturesque, explains the museum’s outgoing photo curator, Hélène Samson. For her, Henderson practiced his art with a colonial gaze, inspired by the European currents of the time, but also sought recognition there rather than here. He will also win several awards for landscape photography.

“He has his own mentality, he is someone who has been trained in Scotland and who comes here, to a colony in the British Empire,” she said. He looks at the Canada he arrives in with British settler glasses. And then it is also a colonial art, because its way, its style, its compositions are quite characteristic of European art. His artistic references are European. […]. And he first seeks recognition in Europe. »

But here his pictures are taken as close to nature as possible. The canoe, made by Aborigines, is one of his favorite motifs, and his pictures document several river portraits made by Aborigines. Henderson visited the Canadian upper class and took a ride on Molson’s yacht, thus visiting the Lower North Shore with its isolated villages. He makes striking winter landscapes. Like people climbing Sugar Loaf, in front of Montmorency Falls, or gliding on Mount Royal. An entire photo series is about frost.

A lack of background

His photos reveal another era and allow a layer of history to take shape before our eyes, like a vanished backdrop of modern Quebec.

In love with Turner and Wilson, Henderson is also characterized by his technical knowledge. Centuries before Photoshop, he superimposed negatives so we could see clouds in a place where the brightness of the sky did not allow it on a single negative.

Most of the pictures in this exhibition are modest in size. In fact, they are the size of the negative, as the artist did not have magnification equipment at the time. Moreover, all the negatives in his work have been destroyed, making his period photographs even more valuable.

The 200 objects that make up the exhibition, including 140 photos, come mainly from the museum’s collection, which has been built up over the years, first with David Ross McCord, the institution’s founder, then with pieces from the collection of the latter. descendant of Hendersons.

With the release of a book accompanying the exhibition, the McCord Museum hopes to bring the artist up to date. There you will find the reproduction of 170 photographs as well as a biography of the artist signed Stanley G. Triggs, former curator of McCord, to whom the museum says it owes the protection of the collection of about 2000 photographs of Henderson.

In the autumn, several activities, round tables and workshops will be arranged as part of the exhibition.

Alexander Henderson. art and nature

McCord Museum, June 10, 2022 to April 16, 2023.

To watch in video

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