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AGH History

The Bruce-Benedicks Saga and the Birth of the AGH
While living in Paris in the 1880's, the budding young Canadian artist, William Blair Bruce, met the aristocratic Swedish sculptress, Caroline Benedicks. They fell in love, married, and eventually established themselves in a permanent year-round residence, Brucebo, on the western seashore of Gotland Island in Sweden. From their artistic union two significant institutions in the world of fine art were to evolve – the birth of the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Canada and the creation of the Brucebo Fine Art Scholarship Foundation in Sweden.

The saga of William and Caroline’s life-story spans one of the most exciting phases in European contemporary history, including its fine art development. It comprises the last quarter of the 19th century and the decades leading up to World War II. The era is characterized by dramatic transformations in not just technological and industrial developments, but also in social and cultural institutions, including the world of art in its various forms.

Caroline Benedicks-Bruce at the Bruce retrospective exhibition, Galeries Georges Petit, 1907 (detail). Photo: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, courtesy of The Brucebo Foundation, Sweden. Caroline Benedicks was born in 1856 into a wealthy industrialist family in Stockholm. Caroline had finished her studies in Sweden in the early 1880's, before moving South, to Paris, and settling in the village of Grez-sur-Loing in 1884, where she stood out from the majority of artists living there. First, she was a single young female in a society that basically frowned upon such status. Second, she was financially independent, and third, she had received a typical "proper" education as behooved a young woman of wealthy family circumstances. Finally, she was a family girl whose keen interest in the fine arts had landed her in a sea of male artists. Another factor that made her quite atypical was her chosen field of art specialization in sculpture rather than the standard popular domain of painting.

William Blair Bruce’s formative years could not have been more different from Caroline’s. William was born in 1859 into a comfortable middle-class here a continent away in Canada, on Hamilton’s “mountain”. He received his early training from his father who was also an amateur painter. In 1877, William studied at the local Mechanics Institute (Hamilton Art School), and from 1878 until 1880 was employed as a draftsman for a local architectural firm.

William Blair Bruce, n.d. (detail). Photo: The Robert McLaughlin Gallery, Oshawa, courtesy of The Brucebo Foundation, Sweden. In the autumn of 1881, at age 22, William sailed to France, settling in Paris and enrolling in classes at the Académie Julien. William wanted to soak up the Parisian atmosphere, discover new inspirational approaches in painting by rubbing shoulders with contemporaries, and to meet the new generation of avant-guard painters. Above all, he wanted to pit his artistic skills and talent in the open competition at the annual Grand Salon, and at various exhibition galleries, against other talented painters who tried to achieve fame in the art world “mecca”, Paris.

William’s behavior in this world was typical. He first rented a studio apartment on Rive Gauche with all the other aspiring artists. However, in 1882, he leased a cottage in the village of Barbizon, on the outskirts of the Forest of Fontainebleau. This became his permanent pied-a-terre during his years in Paris.Meanwhile, Caroline was mixing with the Swedish crowd that tended to center upon the village of Grez-sur-Long, where the young, up-and-coming generation of Swedish painters were developing their talents.

The 1880's were an exciting time for any young artist to reside in France. Toward the latter part of the 19th century, the art world in general had broken with the previous romantic/realism styles that had typified the (landscape) painting schools, both on the Continent and in England during earlier decades. New fine art waves were washing away the traditional studio-based approach to painting, and the innovations in France at the time fostered the first generation of impressionistic painters. This powerful wave of avant-garde art as represented by the impressionists had a major impact throughout European and international art communities. The standard bearers, such as Corot, Monet, Pissaro, and Sisley, were all well-established, and frequently organized private exhibitions outside the annual Paris Salon. They, and others in a widening flock, served as beacons for the younger generation of artists that came to France. William and Caroline included.

The first couple of meetings of Caroline and William must have occurred in this context - accidental and informal encounters in popular places of residence typical of the artistic community at large.

By this time, Caroline was an active and respected member of the Swedish art circles, first at Grez and later Paris. Indeed, before she came to Paris, she had been admitted into the Royal Swedish Academy of Art, a measure of her professional calibre. How a " colonial nobody " such as William, straight out of the British North America Dominion of Canada, could fit into her busy social and professional calendar is hard to imagine. Perhaps it can be best explained through the "Parisian way of life " - the great ease by which people in the art community socialized. Also, both William and Caroline belonged to the younger "talent pool" of the foreign art colony, which also raised their public profile. Hence, given the artist's small world, it was only matter of time before they bumped into each other sometime in the spring of 1885.

William’s letters home suggested that he possessed both a strong personal determination and a great belief in his own artistic talent. William’s talents were not generally being recognized in France at the time, but what surely must have added a certain personal fame was his ill-fated trip home to Canada in the Fall of 1885, during which the steamship, Brooklyn, sank in the Gulf of St. Lawrence with his whole portfolio of five years hard work in Paris – some 200 paintings. Such an event must have been much talked about, and seen as a catastrophic, almost monumental personal tragedy - a drama literally handmade for the bistro and cafe gossip-mills.

Shortly thereafter, a surprise transatlantic voyage brought Caroline and her chaperone uncle to New York and to Canada. After considerable discussion the young couple decided to return to Paris, where William would start resurrecting his shattered career and Caroline continue hers. Caroline and her understanding uncle must have been quite persuasive in the discussions, but more important was the fact that the pair wanted more than anything else to be together, preferably in Paris, where their love affair had begun.

William Blair Bruce, Summer Day, c.1890, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Hamilton. So, they crossed the Atlantic again in 1887, she getting closer to her twin "home-bases" of Paris and Stockholm, he subconsciously casting loose his moorings from his Canadian home-base.

Although Caroline and William were engaged in the fall of 1886, their subsequent marriage did not materialize until 1888. One can only conclude that there existed a certain amount of concern, even resistance, to the young couple's marriage on the part of the Benedicks family. The fact that the newly-weds almost immediately after the wedding returned to Paris is perhaps indicative of their preference of having the Benedicks clan at some distance rather than just round the corner in Stockholm. After the wedding, which saw an impressive gathering of Stockholm high society and cultural elite, Caroline and William literally fled southward to Paris, where they remained for another couple of years practicing a typical bohemian, but fashionable, vagabond lifestyle. They freely traveled to places that caught their fancy and inspired their creativity. They also took up the habit of spending summers in the North, where at an early stage they became enamored with the Island of Gotland.

The Gotland connection is something of an enigma in the Bruce - Benedicks saga. There were no family links with Gotland among the Benedicks, nor any business. The couple seemed to have fallen in love with the island, its serene landscape and leisurely summer ambiance. Gotland Island possessed an open, expansive, almost prairie-flat, pastoral landscape dotted with Viking rune stones, burial sites, rich archeological digs, and 14th century churches in classical "Gotland Gothic style". Gotland was romantic, historical, aesthetically pleasing, and highly inspirational - well worth the young artists’ gaze.

William quickly succumbed. As an aspiring impressionist, he was fascinated by the “Gotland light” and shoreline/seascape interface, both of which figured prominently in his painting from that time on. And, in winter, the island atmosphere was hauntingly dark, with the afternoon's magical l'heure bleue reflected across the frozen beaches and snow-covered meadowlands.

In 1899, the Bruces' settled at Brucebo. The site of their home was located a few kilometers up the coast from Visby, at Skalso - a fishing village on a limestone terrace offering a beautiful westward view toward the low-lying shore, with the light blue sea and sky serving as an immense backdrop. The air was clear, salubrious, and healthy, combining its tonic quality with a scent of fresh pine and the sound of the wind through the forest. At Brucebo they experienced spectacular and ever-changing scenery and the rhythmic sounds of wave and wind mixed with the cries of terns and seagulls. The summer climate was dry, sunny and warm – the very best Sweden could offer, especially for William who was sensitive to damp and raw weather.

The Bruces loved their Brucebo homestead. Caroline did sculpture, etchings, and watercolors, while William captured seascapes on canvas.

They had only seven years on Gotland before William’s untimely death on November 17, 1906 at the age of 47. Caroline was then 50 years old, and would survive her husband by 29 more years. She settled for good at Brucebo and continued to work as a painter and sculptress. She also took an active interest in a number of contemporary political causes - especially the women's emancipation movement in the years prior to World War I. Strangely perhaps, she also became active in Gotland's voluntary military organization, and over the years established herself as a great nationalist-patriot with strong sympathies for the British- French Grande Entente. Indeed, Caroline's life remained full to the very end.

When Caroline passed away, World War II was only four years away, the famous impressionists were all long-gone, 20th century modernistic fine art styles were in full bloom, and social democracy was about to become the political standard in Sweden.

After the death of Caroline in 1935 at the age of 70, a grant endowment was established. However, it was only in 1972 that the formula and institutional arrangement for her wish that a stipend be made available to a promising Canadian painter to spend some summer weeks at Brucebo on the island of Gotland, became reality. Thus, through the Gotland Fine Art Museum, and the Brucebo Fine Art Scholarship Foundation, the Brucebo Fine Arts Summer Scholarship and in recent years, the William Blair Bruce Fine Arts European Travel Scholarship have been offered in a tangible and lasting manner to talented Canadian artists, in commemoration of William Blair Bruce of Hamilton Ontario, and Caroline Benedicks of Stockholm Sweden, and of their transatlantic saga of love and art.

Hamilton Public Library, 1913. But there was also another more immediate legacy of this saga. Upon the death of William, his father in Hamilton and his widow in Gotland offered the City of Hamilton twenty-nine of William’s works, on the understanding that a permanent municipal gallery would be established to house them. However, Hamilton lacked a municipal art gallery at the time, and six years were to pass before the City acquired a space to house the Blair Bruce Collection.

In 1913 the first Hamilton Public Library vacated their building, built on Main Street West near James in 1890, and moved across the street into the new Carnegie Library. Finally, on November 27, 1913 the City finally designated the second floor and attic of the old Public Library Building as space for the first municipal art gallery, named the Hamilton Municipal Gallery.

William Blair Bruce, The Phantom Hunter, 1888, oil on canvas, Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Without the Blair Bruce bequest, it would likely have been many years before Hamilton could ever boast a municipal art gallery – perhaps never. Today, that modest gallery with its Blair Bruce Collection has grown and matured to become the Art Gallery of Hamilton.

For AGH's chronology from 1886 to 2005, click here.

Written by Jan O.Lundgren, Liaison Officer in Canada for the Brucebo Foundation. Edited by Bill Manson.

Written and edited by Bill Manson, Hamilton historian and volunteer at the Art Gallery of Hamilton.


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