Henderson, James (1871-1951)

James Henderson's “Road to the Lake,” oil on canvas, ca. 1935.
James Lanigan

James Henderson, born on August 21, 1871 in Glasgow, Scotland, is considered to be Saskatchewan's pre-eminent first-generation artist. An early aptitude to sketch and draw led to an apprenticeship in lithography, complemented by night courses at the Glasgow School of Art, where he was influenced by the resident and then-popular Scottish Impressionists. Following employment in London as an engraver and lithographer, Henderson immigrated to Winnipeg in 1909 and in 1910 moved to Regina, where he engaged in commercial art assignments. Periodic visits to the picturesque Qu'Appelle Valley appealed to his artistic sensibilities and resulted in relocation to Fort Qu'Appelle in 1916.

At his peak, Henderson was widely known as a painter of First Nations portraits expressive of innate dignity. He exhibited portraits at the 1924 and 1925 British Empire Exhibitions at Wembley, the same venues where Canada's acclaimed Group of Seven first achieved international recognition. (In critical retrospect, many of the portraits are now considered more important as historical records than for their artistic merit. Very few were painted after 1932.) Fort Qu'Appelle's Standing Buffalo Reserve named Henderson as Honorary Chief Wiciteowapi Wicasa, “the man who paints the old men.”

Henderson is best remembered for the artistic mastery of his landscapes, particularly those in which he captured the charm of his beloved Qu'Appelle Valley in all its moods and seasons: the rebirth of spring, the glory of summer, the finality of autumn, and the bleakness of winter - spanning all times of day and night. He also painted landscapes in British Columbia, Alberta, and Ontario's Muskoka Lakes region. Henderson was a Member of the Ontario Society of Artists; he periodically exhibited in Toronto, Ottawa and Montreal, and in 1936 with the Royal Canadian Academy (although he was never elected as a member). A career highlight was the National Gallery of Canada's acquisition of one portrait and two landscapes from 1928 to 1932.

In the annals of Saskatchewan art history, Henderson was the first to make a living solely from creating art, without depending upon teaching income, and he was the first to gain national and international recognition. For his achievements, he received an honorary Doctor of Laws degree from the University of Saskatchewan in 1951. Henderson died on July 5, 1951, in Regina, and was buried overlooking the valley at Fort Qu'Appelle.

James E. Lanigan

Further Reading

Hayworth, A. 1958. “James Henderson of the Qu'Appelle Valley,” Saskatchewan History: 59-66.