ROM SPACES: The Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada

Glen Ellis, head of the Royal Ontario Museum Press and executive editor of ROM magazine

A tribute to the great ROM patron Dr. Sigmund Samuel (1867–1962), the gallery is situated in the Weston Family Wing of the Museum’s historic Queen’s Park building (1933). Adjacent to the ROM Rotunda (dedicated in honour of Ernest and Elizabeth Samuel) and the Daphne Cockwell Gallery of Canada: First Peoples, the Samuel Gallery focuses on Canadian decorative and pictorial arts, from the time of New France, early Atlantic Canada, and Upper Canada, through to the end of the 19th century. It also includes folk art such as fanciful weather vanes, maple sugar molds in the shapes of beavers and maple leaves, and more recent images such as the the paintings of Arthur Heming and Rex Woods.

Along with the Cockwell Gallery, the Samuel Gallery encapsulates the nation’s origins. Rob Pierce, incoming chair of the ROM’s Board of Governors, describes it as an invaluable resource: “For new Canadians wanting to understand the origins of this country and the romance of Canadian history, there isn’t a better place than these galleries. The wealth of historical artifacts and the genius of the displays create a virtual time travel though the first chapters of Canada’s story.”

One of the signature collections, early French-Canadian furniture is the largest and most significant outside Quebec. Founded in 1931 by ethnographer-folklorist Marius Barbeau and first ROM director Charles Currelly, it reflects stylistic influences from 17th-century France (especially Brittany and Normandy) and, after 1759, British and American influences to 1900. The collection is discussed and photographed in detail in Rococo to Rustique: Early French-Canadian Furniture in the Royal Ontario Museum, by Donald Blake Webster, published by ROM Press.

From Atlantic Canada, the work of cabinetmaker Thomas Nisbet is especially well represented. The furniture of Upper Canada on display reflects English, American, and German influences (both continental and Pennsylvania-German).

The ROM’s is one of the world’s premier collections of Canadian historical-documentary art. Comprising 3,800 watercolours and drawings and 365 oils, it spans two-and-a-half centuries of the Canadian experience, from circa 1750 to 2009. The gallery text panels and labels provide insight into the position of Canada’s pictorial art in the national psyche. On landscape: “Views of Canada are inextricably linked to one’s ideas of what this place means. Laden with historical, cultural, psychological, and aesthetic impulses, Canadian landscape stokes the imagination and fosters desire, memory, and nostalgia, offering a stable mooring in a changing world.”

 The pièce-de-résistance of the gallery and one of the national treasures is The Death of General Wolfe (1776) by Benjamin West, one of five originals from the artist’s studio. The painting, in the classical heroic style, departed from that tradition in depicting the personages in contemporary (1759) attire. Felled by sniper fire at the moment of victory, the general gazes skyward as light disperses clouds and battle smoke.

The Wilson Canadian Heritage Exhibition Room within the gallery is a venue for temporary exhibits related to Canada’s history. It is named in honour of Lynton R. (Red) and Brenda Wilson in appreciation of their generous support of the Museum.

Glen Ellis is the executive editor of ROM magazine. He also manages the Royal Ontario Museum Press.

Photo credit: Brian Boyle