The Canadian Academy of Arts was founded in 1880 under the patronage of the Governor General of Canada, Sir John Douglas Sutherland Campbell, Marquis of Lorne. With the objective of advancing the growth and development of the visual arts in a young nation, twenty-five of the country’s most accomplished painters, sculptors, and architects were selected as Charter Academicians along with fifty Associates.
With painter Lucius O’Brien as the first President, the Canadian Academy recognized the importance of encouraging the visual arts and setting aesthetic standards that would compare favourably to those of other countries while the organization acknowledged the necessity to celebrate the authenticity of the Canadian experience.
On June 22, 1880, the Canadian Academy was given permission by Queen Victoria to use the prefix ‘Royal’. Two years later on May 17, 1882 the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts was officially incorporated by an act of Parliament.
Founding of the National Gallery and its Collection
The goals of the charter members was to encourage the visual arts in Canada by holding annual juried exhibitions, initiating the first life drawing classes, and by building a national art collection.
The first exhibition of the RCA opened on March 6th, 1880 by the Governor General, the Marquis of Lorne at the Clarendon Hotel in Ottawa. This event simultaneously launched the National Gallery of Canada and its collection; this coincided with the first RCA Annual General Meeting at which time its first Council was elected. Until 1976, every new member was required to deposit a diploma work with the Canadian Government to form the nucleus of the national collection. An example of such a work is Sunrise on the Saguenay, by Lucius O’Brien, among the first works donated in 1880. The National Gallery’s Canadian collection is now made up in part of many of these diploma works, and owes its beginning to the foresight of the RCA’s founding members who recognised the importance of building a national gallery to present Canadian work to the public.
Annual Juried Exhibitions
The RCA’s annual juried exhibitions continued for 91 years, and were held in a different Canadian city each year. These juried exhibitions served to educate the public on the quality and variety of Canadian art and introduced newer artists to the community.
Life Drawing Classes
At a time when art instruction was limited, the RCA inaugurated life-drawing classes in several Canadian cities. Beginning in Ottawa, classes were then held in Montréal, Toronto, and later, Hamilton, Winnipeg and Halifax. These classes provided rare opportunities to draw from the nude model and were often taught by RCA members. Moreover, instruction incorporated technical drawing lessons and encouraged aesthetic dialogue.
The emergence of professional art colleges eliminated the need for the RCA’s life drawing classes. Annual juried exhibitions were eventually discontinued as well as a result of the founding of commercial and public galleries that expanded the venues available to professional artists for the exhibition of their work.