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b. 4 March 1794 in Boucherville, Lower Canada


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SAWYER, WILLIAM, portrait painter and photographer; b. 9 Nov. 1820 in Montreal, Lower Canada, son of John Sawyer and Agnes Brown; m. 18 Nov. 1851 Eliza Jane Baxter, and they had 10 children; d. 9 Dec. 1889 in Kingston, Ont.

After considering a law career William Sawyer set out to become an artist, a profession which in 19th-century Canada promised little security. He obtained his early art training in Montreal; his first works are genre and landscape subjects, similar to those of Cornelius Krieghoff* and his contemporaries, and also portraits. By the mid 1840s Sawyer had established himself in a studio in Montreal where he sought out portrait commissions from the leading citizens. Even though he kept his prices low because of his inexperience, there was not enough work in Montreal and he became an itinerant portrait painter. He travelled extensively along the north shore of Lake Ontario as far west as Toronto, stopping off in Morrisburg, Brockville, Kingston, Belleville, Bowmanville, and Port Hope in search of portrait commissions from businessmen and lawyers in these thriving shoreline service centres for the opening frontier of Canada West.

In 1851 Sawyer married and with his wife made a short trip to New York to study before returning to Kingston in May 1852. Sawyer and his wife relocated in Montreal where they remained until 1855 when they settled permanently in Kingston; throughout this time Sawyer continued to visit towns as widely separated as Ottawa, Watertown, N.Y., and Peterborough, Canada West. He was successful enough by 1862 to travel to Scotland, England, France, and Belgium to visit galleries where he could see works by the most eminent portrait painters. Upon his return he divided his time between Kingston and Montreal; in the latter city he operated an “Art and Photographic Studio” in partnership with Edwin R. Turner, acting as both a painter and a photographer. In this connection he became involved in the controversy surrounding the use of the photograph in portrait painting, which he supported as long as it was only employed as a sketch might be. In 1863 Sawyer’s considerable reputation brought him a commission to paint a portrait of John A. Macdonald* for the city hall in Kingston, where several of his portraits of mayors were already hanging. His commissions extended to three speakers of the Senate, who engaged him to paint their portraits for the Library of Parliament, and to Sir William Edmond Logan*, William Molson*, Charles Tupper*, and William Workman*, as well as to senators Frank Smith* and Robert Duncan Wilmot*.

As was often the custom Sawyer found it necessary to supplement his income: he painted figures for Thomas Robinson, a well-established local ornamental painter, gave art lessons, took photographs, and sent his work to competitive exhibitions where he often won monetary prizes. From his earliest years he promoted his work vigorously through exhibitions, advertising, and articles in newspapers, especially in Montreal. He was also an early promoter of the establishment of a national portrait gallery. In 1847, in the company of Krieghoff and several other artists, Sawyer participated in an exhibition of the Montreal Society of Artists, in 1867 he exhibited with the Society of Canadian Artists in Montreal, and in 1872 he sent works to the first exhibition of the Ontario Society of Artists at Toronto.

Sawyer’s portraits are competent but not outstanding, showing in their visual qualities the contemporary influence of the photograph. They are substantial and factual as required by his 19th-century Canadian subjects, who were concerned with the enhancement of their position in the community. Indeed, Sawyer saw himself in much the same way, a figure of substance and reputation, and his view was corroborated by the regard in which he was held by those among whom he lived and worked.

Michael Bell

[Portraits by Sawyer are held in Kingston, Ont., at the city hall and at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre at Queen’s University; in Ottawa in the National Gallery of Canada, the PAC, and the Parliament Buildings; in Hamilton, Ont., in the Art Gallery of Hamilton; in the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; in the Winnipeg Art Gallery; and in private collections.

A collection of genealogical data and letters is in the possession of W. G. Schram, and Mrs J. C. Wallace of Kingston also possesses genealogical data as well as Sawyer’s day-books, 1856–66, his diary of his trip to Europe in 1862, and his account books, 1882–89.  m.b.]

PAC, MG 26, A, 358: 166186–89. Daily British Whig, 10 Dec. 1889. Gazette (Montreal), 24 Jan. 1872. Harper, Early painters and engravers; Painting in Canada.

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Cite This Article

Michael Bell, “SAWYER, WILLIAM,” in Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11, University of Toronto/Université Laval, 2003–, accessed March 4, 2024, http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sawyer_william_11E.html.

The citation above shows the format for footnotes and endnotes according to the Chicago manual of style (16th edition). Information to be used in other citation formats:

Permalink:   http://www.biographi.ca/en/bio/sawyer_william_11E.html
Author of Article:   Michael Bell
Title of Article:   SAWYER, WILLIAM
Publication Name:   Dictionary of Canadian Biography, vol. 11
Publisher:   University of Toronto/Université Laval
Year of publication:   1982
Year of revision:   1982
Access Date:   March 4, 2024