Frederick Hagan’s (1918-2003) unique work has for decades responded to and shaped Canadian painting. Born in Toronto and raised in Cabbagetown, Hagan looked to his lived environments as sources for his artistic subjects: the bustling urban life of a growing city, memories of family and childhood experiences, and the idyllic scenery of the Muskoka region, to which he traveled regularly.
Hagan was quickly recognized for his talent, and by age 21 was exhibiting with the Royal Canadian Academy, while taking classes at the Ontario College of Art under the direction of John Alfsen and Frank Carmichael. Soon, he would take on the role of educator himself, a vocation which would come to define Hagan’s career in equal part to his studio practice. Between 1946 and 1983, Hagan taught painting, drawing, and printmaking at the Ontario College of Art; a talented lithographer in his own right, he influenced an entire generation of artists who would take up the challenge of figurative painting and revive its role as a valuable genre that could comment meaningfully on a contemporary spirit.
Immersed in a culture of painting that increasingly privileged abstraction, Hagan was—in the words of Damian Tarnopolsky, writing for the Globe and Mail—“immune to artistic fashions,” and firmly committed to his figurative style with little investment in self-promotion. But the artist’s canvases were nonetheless deeply symbolic, powerful, and energized portraits of humanity that combined Cubist, Mannerist, Expressionist, and even Classical principles of composition while ultimately creating a style all his own, rooted his personal, existential questioning.
Early figurative painting depicts the character and atmosphere of depression-era Toronto in rich oils; figures are almost caricatured, flattened or exaggerated bodies that serve as archetypal subjects of industry, labour, family, and politics. Hagan’s watercolours—by no means demoted in the artist’s oeuvre—are completed works that similarly comment on the human condition by way of the figure’s absence. These works on paper, most of which were painted outdoors during Hagan’s travels—are sensitive renderings of a natural world in which we are merely reverent visitors.
In 1967, Hagan was awarded the Canadian Centennial Medal; in 1985, he was commissioned by Canada Post to create the 16 postage stamps, issued 1986-1989; in 1998, he was awarded the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts Medal. His work is presented in prominent public collections including those of the Art Gallery of Ontario, the National Gallery of Canada, and the Royal Ontario Museum.
Frederick Hagan passed away on September 6, 2003 at the age of 85.