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William Valentine (1798–1849)

William Valentine

Attributed to William Valentine, Mrs. Grace Langford Nordbeck, c.1835
Oil on canvas, 49.6 x 40.1 cm
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax

William Valentine emigrated to Halifax from Cumbria, England, in 1818 and immediately started working as a painter. For more than thirty years he was the leading artistic figure in Halifax and received commissions from across Atlantic Canada. Valentine was not a society painter, receiving most of his commissions from what curator Dianne O’Neill (b.1944) describes as “a prosperous and self-assured middle class with a taste for naturalistic representation in a plain style that contrasted with grander portraits in Europe.  That plain style is apparent in such works as Mrs. Grace Langford Nordbeck, c.1835, and Rev. William Black, 1827, both of which feature black-clad sitters against dark backgrounds, forcing the viewer’s attention to the finely rendered details of their faces. In his early years in Halifax, Valentine also worked as a house painter when commissions were slow. In 1842, near the end of his career, he adopted the new technology of photography and introduced the daguerreotype process to Atlantic Canada.


William Valentine, Rev. William Black, 1827, oil on canvas, 29.1 x 24.3 cm, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax.
Attributed to William Valentine, Portrait of a Lady with a Lace Bonnet [Louisa Haliburton], c.1839, oil on canvas, 93 x 73.7 cm, Art Gallery of Nova Scotia, Halifax.


Valentine modelled his business after the itinerant portrait painters of the day, travelling to cities such as Charlottetown and St. John’s to spend a few weeks soliciting commissions. In 1836 he visited London, where he studied and made copies of prominent portraits. Three of those portraits, of presidents of the Royal Society, are in the collection of the Nova Scotia Museum. Valentine’s time in London improved his skillset. As one historian noted, “his studies in England had given him a more delicate sense of tone and colour, and his subsequent paintings were much the better for it.  Valentine’s portraits are informal and finely rendered, “revealing the human warmth of the sitter and, in the later work, rich and warm in tone.  A fire in his studio in 1848 destroyed many of his best works, as well as numerous commissions he had been working on, and he died the following year, in 1849.



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