Arthur Henry Howard Heming (1870-1940) gained international renown as the “Chronicler of the North” as a result of his vivid depictions, made as an artist and writer, of the Canadian wilderness. At the height of his career, he was among the country’s best-known artists, gaining particular attention in the United States and Europe. In the minds of millions, his work symbolized Canada. Born in 1870, Heming grew up in Paris, Ontario, and in the neighbouring city of Hamilton. He left school at an early age to go to work. From the beginning, Heming excelled at both art and sports, and by sixteen indulged an adventurous spirit through travels in the wild. Heming eventually found a way to earn a living and renown by combining this physical fortitude and artistic prowess. His art and stories helped cultivate a new and rugged vision of Canadian identity based on the northern wilderness.
As a teenager Heming began studying art in the evenings at the Hamilton Art School, and eventually became an instructor. In this capacity he trained many artists, including a newly-arrived English immigrant J.E.H. MacDonald, who went on to help found the Group of Seven. Around 1890, however, Heming’s illustrations were accepted by a magazine in New York, and he left teaching to work as an illustrator. Over the coming years his imagery found its way into numerous publications, including newspapers and journals in Canada and the United States, Britain, and across Western Europe.
In the late 19th and early 20th centuries, many Canadians studied and worked abroad. Heming trained in New York City under the artist Frank Vincent DuMond (1865-1951). In 1904 he travelled to London, England, to learn from famed painter Frank Brangwyn (1867-1956). For several years in the early 1900s, Heming also belonged to the renowned artist colony of Old Lyme, Connecticut. The community was a hotbed of creativity influenced by the Barbizon School and Impressionism, and much of what is known of this part of American history comes from Heming’s writings.
Heming exhibited his work regularly in galleries, sometimes alongside the Group of Seven, and with greatest success in a London solo show in 1934. He produced drawings and paintings chiefly for illustration purposes, however, profiting from a context that brought him a broad audience on a daily basis. His portrayals of life in remote places have been called “fictionized fact,” or “factual fantasies.” Originally quite realistic and narrative in nature, the work for which he gained the most attention is often surreal, populated by “flying” bears, deer and canoes, weird snowscapes, and the like. Heming’s subjects and approach differed radically from that of the Group of Seven, which for decades set the very definition of Canadian art.
Heming’s work nevertheless extolled Canada as a sort of snowy Eden, though one matter-of-factly described as full of hardship and death. Heming drew on his travels to author three books: Spirit Lake, Drama of the Forests, and The Living Forest. Youth and adult audiences avidly read these books, as well as novels and articles he illustrated for other authors. These efforts pioneered a Canadian adventure genre that would later be dominated by talents such as the writer Farley Mowat. Influential and celebrated in his day at home and beyond, Heming’s work fell from the public eye after his death. He remains, however, a major cult figure to historians, art aficionados and outdoorsmen. His work is a resource for appreciating the social power of visual art, and the formation of a heroic national identity.