Ontario Society of Artists and the Government of Ontario Art Collection: The Founding of the Society and its First Exhibition - Page Banner

Table of Contents


Founded on June 25, 1872, the OSA is the oldest continuing art society in Ontario. The impetus for its establishment came from a small group of seven artists who held their first meeting at the home of John A. Fraser on Gould Street in Toronto. Present were noted marine watercolourist, Robert Ford Gagen, Marmaduke Matthews, best known for his watercolours of Rocky Mountain scenes, Thomas Mower Martin, Charles S. Millard who was born in Ontario but spent much of his life in Britain, James Hoch and portrait artist, J. W. Bridgman. Many of the founding members can be seen in the photograph from 1889 below.

Photo: Ontario Society of Artists Members, 1889
Click to see a larger image (366K)
Ontario Society of Artists Members, 1889
William Daniel Blatchly, Marmaduke M. Mathews, John Wycliffe Lowes Forster,
Thomas Mower Martin, Hamilton P. McCarthy, H. Hanniford, Robert Ford Gagen,
Hon. G. Allen, William Revell, William Albert Sherwood
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1140-7-0-2.2
Archives of Ontario, I0010501

First Page of OSA Minute Book with entry for the inaugural meeting on June 25th, 1872.
Click to see a larger image (359K)
First Page of OSA Minute Book with entry for the inaugural meeting on June 25th, 1872
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Reference Code: F 1140-2254
Archives of Ontario

Photo: John Arthur Fraser, [ca. 1890]

A key figure in the early days of the OSA was John Fraser who was born in England and had come to Toronto from Montreal where he was an active member of the Society of Canadian Artists.

As a junior business partner in the Notman and Fraser photographic firm, it was Fraser’s skill in hand-tinting and colouring photographs that greatly contributed to the success and expansion of the Notman & Fraser business.

Click to see a larger image (195K)
John Arthur Fraser, [ca. 1875]
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1140-7-0-1
Archives of Ontario, I0010387

The Society's second meeting was held in July, 1872. At that meeting a full slate of officers for the Society was proposed. Artist members were to serve as vice president and secretary and these positions were filled by Fraser himself as vice-president and Herbert Hancock as secretary. The role of president and treasurer were to be taken by non-artists.

Prominent businessman and future mayor of Toronto, William H. Howland accepted the invitation to become the OSA’s first President while local coal merchant, H. J. Morse accepted the role of treasurer. Morse’s tenure was somewhat short lived however, as he caused the Society financial embarrassment due to the misappropriation of funds to shore up his failing business.

During that second meeting, the Society's constitution was also unanimously adopted. It contained sixteen articles, the most important of which called for the establishment in Toronto of a permanent public art gallery and the holding of annual art exhibitions by the Society.

Robert Ford Gagen, [ca. 1900]
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1140-7-0-1
Archives of Ontario, I0010389

Photo: Robert Ford Gagen, [ca. 1900]

The First Exhibition

The Society's first exhibition was scheduled to be held in April of 1873. Unfortunately, with little permanent gallery space available in the city, the Society had trouble locating a suitable facility. However, with the construction of the new Notman & Fraser premises on King Street East, Fraser was able to make these available at no cost to the Society.

Photo: First Exhibition, Fraser's Gallery, King St. West, Toronto, 1873
First Exhibition, Fraser's Gallery, King St. West, Toronto, 1873
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Black and white print
Reference Code: F 1140-7-0-3-3
Archives of Ontario, I0010326

A favourable description of the exhibition was reported by the Canadian Illustrated News. Selected paintings were reproduced in its edition of May 3 accompanied by a lengthy article and an interior view of the gallery which was featured on its cover:

“The Exhibition has since been open each day, and very fairly patronised by the public. For ourselves we were much gratified and somewhat surprised by the display made at this, the first effort of Ontario to get up a Fine Art Exhibition . . . The large room is well lighted from above in the most approved style, and gives all the pictures within a few feet of the spectator a chance of being seen . . .”

Twenty-eight artists entered 251 works in either oil or watercolour that were hung salon style in a space of approximately 9.14 x 15.24 metres (30 x 50 feet). The exhibition was a tremendous success and drew more than 4,000 interested visitors.

In addition, an ‘Art Union’ was held whereby subscribers could purchase tickets in advance for $5. Each ticket provided the chance for one of 50 artwork prizes ranging in value from $25 to $150, a chromo-lithograph of a well-known painting, and unlimited entry to the exhibition.

The organization of the annual Art Union was modelled on the practice of art societies in Britain and was intended to foster an appreciation for art amongst the public. However, it consumed much of the Executive’s time and, on more than one occasion, caused difficulty in the misuse of its funds.

Ontario Society of Artists Art Union Ticket, 1896 and Ticket Stub, 1892
Click to see a larger image (69K)
Ontario Society of Artists Art Union Ticket,
1896 and Ticket Stub, 1892
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Reference Code: F 1140-1
Archives of Ontario

Catalogue of the OSA First Annual Exhibition held at Notman & Fraser’s Art Galleries, 39, 41 & 43 King Street East, Toronto, April 1873
Click to see a larger image (158K)
Catalogue of the OSA First Annual Exhibition held at Notman & Fraser’s Art Galleries, 39, 41 & 43 King Street East, Toronto, April 1873
Ontario Society of Artists fonds
Reference Code: F 1140-2259
Archives of Ontario

The Government of Ontario purchased artworks from this first exhibition. Although no details have survived about the pieces acquired, the amount of $1065 is recorded for the purchase of paintings in both the records of the Society and the Public Accounts of the Province for 1873.

The records of the OSA, including details of members and meetings as well as photographs and catalogues, provide a fascinating account of the Society's activities since its founding in 1872. These records were acquired by the Archives from the Society beginning in 1965. Additional donations of records from the OSA were made to the Archives in 1972 and 1993.


Previous |Home | Next
The Recent OSA Donations to the Government Art Collection | The Founding of the
Society and its First Exhibition | Early Purchases and the Foundation of Art Education
The Ballot Pictures and the Provincial Art Gallery | The Final Purchases