Owl’s Head, Lake Memphremagog
Eastern Townships, Quebec
1859, Cornelius Krieghoff
oil on canvas | Genre painting style
National Gallery of Canada
In Owl’s Head, Lake Memphremagog, Cornelius Krieghoff has painted the most monumental of landscapes: a mountain. This mountain bears similarities to a waterfall, another popular subject of the time. Its steep sides fall vertically much like water, plunging into the depths below. Typical of the artist’s work at the time, the figures are located in the lower third of the work, while the expansive landscape occupies the upper two thirds. These figures are dwarfed by the environment they inhabit, suggesting a hierarchy between humanity and nature. It seems the entire scene is at the mercy of the ominously dark storm bearing down on it.
The change in visual relationship in Krieghoff’s landscapes (figure vs. environment) indicates a shift in his personal philosophy regarding this dynamic. Instead of man dominating and making nature subservient to him, in this painting he is acknowledging nature’s dominion over man. This new paradigm is illustrated by the human figures desperately trying to get to shore and avoid the storm alongside the regal mountain, towering and unaffected by the impending weather.
Krieghoff painted this landscape with the same intentions as many artists of the day: to sell it. The work is direct and simple, capturing romantic and dramatic ideas of nature and pairing them with the adventurous pleasure of vacationing. The work was intended to appeal to the middle-class of the time, others like him who could afford to travel and appreciate the memories and fantasies this painting would evoke.