The subject of this rural scene is a shepherd working in a stretch of choppy water in the foreground. The trees on either side cloak his activity in heavy shadow. The middle ground is occupied by a flock of sheep and two men.

Horatio Walker

(Listowel, Ontario, 1858 – Sainte-Pétronille, Quebec, 1938)

 

Washing Sheep

1899

Oil on canvas  

53.8 x 70 cm

Anonymous gift, 2012

Vancouver Art Gallery, VAG 2012.24.4

Photo: Vancouver Art Gallery, Rachel Topham


Washing Sheep is a little-known work by Horatio Walker. Unlike the famous contemplative countryside scenes that open onto vast, cloudy skies, Washing Sheep affords only a glimpse of blue. The main activity is taking place in deep shade. As with most of Walker’s paintings, the subject relates to the backbreaking labour of peasant farmers, in this case a man bent over to wash a sheep in a stream or pond. The loose, short brushstrokes that create movement and texture on the surface of the water reflect the artist’s attention to detail. 


Horatio Walker gained fame during his lifetime, a rare accomplishment for artists in those days. His idealized pastoral scenes glorifying farm life and depicting the pious ways of Quebec peasants met with great success. American museums soon began acquiring his work, while Canadian collectors struggled to afford them. In 1910, the National Gallery of Canada bought Oxen Drinking, painted the same year as Washing Sheep, for the then large sum of $10,000. Owing to the influence of the Barbizon School in his landscapes, Walker was known as the “American Millet.”

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