Sunrise on the Saguenay to shine again at National Gallery after restoration

Detail from Lucius R. O’Brien's Sunrise on the Saguenay, Cape Trinity, 1880 Royal Canadian Academy of Arts diploma work, deposited by the artist, Toronto, 1880 National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. Photo: NGC

It’s as if a new day has slowly dawned across Lucius O’Brien’s greatest painting, Sunrise on the Saguenay, and now all shines more brightly than it has in a lifetime.

The painting is a masterpiece at the National Gallery of Canada, deposited there by O’Brien when he was appointed as first president of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts. It was 1880, and it was one of the very first works in the collection of the new gallery. Its 137 years there have been blessedly uneventful — no rips, no stains, no fires nor vandals — but the mere passage of time challenges a painting, and so Sunrise on the Saguenay is nearing the end of its third restoration, its first since the 1950s. 

Conservator Susan Walker has spent dozens of hours in a task that is exacting and methodical, with her solvent-soaked swab moving touch by delicate touch, from right to left like the sun moving east to west, bringing all freshly into the light. When the job was half done the left half of the canvas was curiously in twilight, as if caught in a inexplicable eclipse. Now that the aged varnish has been completely removed, the subject and colours of the entire canvas are gloriously luminous.

Conservator Susan Walker with Sunrise on the Saguenay. Photo: Peter Simpson

“It’s kind of a peak for him,” says Walker, as she stands before the oil painting in the gallery’s conservation lab and demonstrates her primary tool, a plain bamboo skewer that she spins in her fingers until one end is snugly covered with a wad of cotton batten, like a barker making miniature cotton candy cones at a carnival. 

O’Brien was born 1832 in Shanty Bay, Ontario, in a log cabin, which is an admirably Canadian entrance. He demonstrated an early aptitude for drawing, but worked in an architect’s office and as a civil engineer before he became a full-time artist in 1873. 

He had a great love for the land, as felt in a letter when he wrote, “artists should help to represent Canada by such portrayal as they can give of the picturesque aspects of her scenery & life,” which “would materially help to make the country known and understood.”

Not that such portrayals had to be literal: O’Brien took substantial liberties with his portrayal of Cape Trinity in Sunrise on the Saguenay. The three mighty bluffs accurately rise up as they have for millennia, towering over several plausible steam boats on the water, but Walker says the artist replaced a marshy foreground with a pleasant, flower-sparkled beach, and that he didn’t portray extensive damage from recent forest fires.

More notably, the scene actually faces northwest, and not to the east where the sun rises, as O’Brien wanted to show both the natural beauty and the industrial potential of the fledgling nation.

“He’s trying to achieve a sense and a feeling of the sublime Canadian landscape, and the sense of industry, with the steam boats,” Walker says. “It’s drawing in a lot of aspects of Canada at the time, and the sunrise, it’s more inspirational than a sunset would be. We get the idea of a new country.” 

The majesty of Cape Trinity has inspired many artists — even the revered American Winslow Homer had a go. By mid-June, O’Brien’s restored painting will in be room A-105 of the newly reinvented Canadian and indigenous galleries. 

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Peter Simpson, a native of Prince Edward Island, was arts editor and arts editor at large for the Ottawa Citizen for 15 years, with a focus on the visual arts. He lives in downtown Ottawa with one wife, two cats and more than 100 paintings, drawings and sculptures.