John Sloan Gordon (1868-1940)
"Mitchel Street, Back Haven Fife" June 23, 1883
5" x 7" sight
Born in Brantford, Ontario, his parents moved to Hamilton when he was only nine months old. As a youth he worked for a railway company and spent most of his leisure time drawing. He worked there for three years and finally realized he was not really interested in a railway career. He resigned and not long afterwards went to work for the Howell Litho Company in Hamilton. He learned the fundamentals of lithographing and spent much of his time mixing ink, running the varnishing machine, sweeping the floor and general cleaning jobs in the shop. After four years he became a free lance artist doing advertisements and illustrations for the press.
With the help of generous relations in Scotland and with the money he had saved for himself, he set out for Paris. Soon after he arrived there (1895) he enrolled at the Julian Academy where he studied under Benjamin Constant and Jean Paul Laurens. There he associated with Barlow, Keifer and Henry Ossawa Tanner all of whom made names for themselves in the world of art. He opened his first studio in Paris and in co-operation with Trist and Wood, he founded, edited and illustrated a magazine called “Quarter Latin”. Contributing artists included Barlow, Luis Mora, Blumerstein, H.O. Tanner, Lester Ralph, Charles Peers and William Shakleton. About this time he was also contributing ti the “Gentlemen” (London), the “Herald” (Boston) and the “Tribune” (New York). For the “Herald” he covered the Czar's visit to Paris on the occasion of the opening of Port Alexandre III in 1896.
He returned to Canada in the winter of that year and received his first commission from the Toronto “Saturday Night” illustrating a story for its Christmas number. For several years he continued to do illustrations for the Christmas number of “Saturday Night”. Also, he did illustrations for the “Globe” and “Canadian Magazine”.
In his painting he was influences by the work of Le Sidaner, Seurat and Monet. He began to work in broken colour and evolved a tonal scheme of his own. In this respect the Toronto “Saturday Night”in 1925 made these comments, “He was the first Canadian artist to apply colour to canvas in points instead of sweeping-brush strokes....to use the class of technique termed 'Pointillism' in Europe.” In 1909 the National Gallery of Canada purchased hi “Old Mill, Brantford” which was considered to be a typical example of his oil painting. He also worked frequently in watercolour.
He has a deep appreciation of the work of Rembrandt and when in London, England, he would go with his wife (Hortense Gordon) to the National Gallery where they would ask for chairs and sit before “Woman Bathing” (actually a painting of Rembrandt's wife Saskia). John Gordon collected excellent prints of all of Rembrandt's works and also prints by other artists of every period and type of painting. He used this collection as a further aid in his teaching as well for his own appreciation. He studied the Flemish old masters in Holland and visited 14 galleries in the Hague. He admired the work of Le Sidanier, Seurat, Gauguin and others. Hortense Gordon related how he went without food to by an original etching by Fortuny. He also enjoyed the work of Henri Matisse and Picasso.
The same year he arrived back in Canada he took part in the organizing of the Hamilton Art League where he taught advanced drawing and painting along the lines followed by French scholars. Eventually, the Art League became part of the Hamilton School of Art and Gordon was appointed Head of the School of Art (Principal of the Art Department of the Hamilton Technical and Art School). In this capacity, he gave guidance to many students who became outstanding artists including Arthur Crisp, Arthur William Brown, B. Gory Kilvert, Albert H. Robinson, Grace Patterson and Paul Domville, most of whom made their living in the United States. Of his students, Gordon commented, “I take no credit for their success other than as one of them has said, they 'got a good foundation and nothing that they learned with me were they ever required to unlearn.' On the other hand, I had excellent material to work with...” Gordon, a big, robust, witty Scottish Canadian, was respected not only as an artist and teacher but also as a person with a good sense of humour and generous nature.
Gordon admired the work of Tom Thomson and visited him several times at Algonquin Park. There he stayed with A.M. Cunningham and family at Nominigan Damp on Smoke Lake and was able to contact Thomson through Bud Callaghan, the ranger at Mowat Lodge. In Hamilton he received many visitors a his home in connection with various artistic functions, including Homer Watson, Sir Wylie Grier, F.S. Challener and C.W. Jefferys. He was a good friends of Arthur Heming with whom he sketched on a number of occasions. Heming used to ask him for advice on certain passages of his writings believed to be for his “Spirit Lake”, particularly where Scottish expressions were involved.
Gordon loves poietry and his wife made mention of his remarkable memory as follows; “Along with his art lectures, (he) could quote most of the plays of Shakespeare almost work perfect. A wonderful recording mins, a memory which recorded or blue-printed a poem after one or two readings.” During his career he did illustrations and designs for books including W.A. Fraser's books published by Scribner, and W.D. Lighthall's “The Master of Life” published in 1908 by Musson Book Company of Toronto. He painted a ceiling in the Library of Congress, Washington, in collaboration with William de Leftwich Dodge. The Managing Editor of the Hamilton “Spectator” W. Muliss dedicated a poem to him under the title of “Protean John.”
After an illness of six years John Gordon passed away at Hamilton in 1940. He was a member of the Royal Canadian Academy (A.R.C.A.- 1923). His wife continues her adventure in painting and was one of the members of “Painters Eleven”. She died in 1961.
Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977