BRUCE, William Blair
(b. 1859, Hamilton, d. 1906, Stockholm)


Canadian painter, Canada's first impressionist painter who established his artistic reputation in Europe. Bruce studied law at the Hamilton Collegiate Institute before working for three years in a handwriting academy run by his father, a gifted calligrapher and amateur water-colourist. Both parents encouraged his artistic talents. He took painting lessons from his father, from John Herbert Caddy, and from Henry Martin, and briefly attended the Hamilton Art School in 1877. After three years of study in an architect's office he settled on a career: to become an artist.

Like many Canadian artists of his generation, Bruce planned to further his career by training and exhibiting in Paris. With the blessing and financial support of his mother, grandmother, and aunt, in 1881 he traveled to Paris and in October he entered the Académie Julian and he studied under Adolphe-William Bouguereau and Tony Robert-Fleury, respected painters in the then-prevalent academic style. They instilled in Bruce a belief in the primacy of the human figure - carefully observed and then, through an arduous process of drawing and oil sketching, incorporated into large paintings suitable for inclusion in the annual Paris Salon. At the same time, however, Bruce was committed to painting landscape views en plein air.

The next two years Bruce spent primarily in Barbizon, a small village and artists' community near Paris, labouring intensely towards a single goal - the creation of a major painting which would gain him a Salon prize and secure his career. But no prize was forthcoming.

Bruce's great effort had taken its toll. He carried on for a year before succumbing to a breakdown ("I sometimes think my brains are shattered"). In the fall of 1885 he sailed home to recuperate, only to suffer another set-back, perhaps of greater magnitude: the ship transporting approximately two hundred of his works for exhibition in Toronto, Hamilton, and London sank off Île d'Anticosti on 8 November and all were lost.

Bruce remained a year in Hamilton before returning to Paris in late 1886. After spending a few months in Barbizon he settled in Giverny with several American artist friends. In 1888 in the British embassy at Stockholm Bruce married a wealthy and socially prominent Swedish sculptor, Carolina Benedicks; a sacerdotal ceremony was held the following day in the cathedral. Over the next two decades they travelled and worked - visiting Paris, Capri, Italy, Hamilton (in 1895, when he painted on the Six Nations Reserve), and, increasingly, Stockholm and the Swedish island of Gotland. There, around 1900, near Visby, Bruce and his wife completed a large house, Brucebo, which was to serve as their primary residence.

Despite a considerable output and many fine paintings from his later years - especially portraits of his wife and twilight views of Stockholm and the sea - his reputation has suffered from the wide variety of his subjects (portraits, landscapes, genre, mythology, and the nude) and, more significantly, the eclecticism of his style (vacillating between impressionism and the academism of his early career with overtones of James Abbott McNeill Whistler, the Barbizon School, and Scandinavian romanticism).

A gift of 29 paintings to the city of Hamilton by his widow led to the founding of what is now the Art Gallery of Hamilton. The largest selection of his works outside Brucebo is currently housed there.