The art of French Canada in the 17th and 18th centuries was associated with the Catholic Church. Particularly typical were church decorations and religious wood sculptures.
In English Canada, motifs from nature were popular, e.g. mountains and waterfalls. Gradually, heroic battle motifs and portraits of generals and Native American chiefs became common. Two artists that became very popular were Paul Kane and Cornelius Krieghoff.
From the late 1890s, art was influenced by French Impressionism. Around 1910 a reaction arose to this art in Toronto, and some painters joined the group The Group of Seven, which wanted to create a new and unique Canadian art. They were mainly landscape painters and chose motifs from the wilderness. Their design language was figurative, and we find parallels in i.a. at the same time Norwegian national romantic and symbolic painting. The group consisted of Tom Thomson (1877-1917), JEH MacDonald (1873-1932), Lawren Harris (1885-1970), Arthur Lismer (1885-1909), F. Horsman Varley (1881-1969), Franklin Carmichael (1890- 1945) and Frank H. Johnston (1888-1949).
The Canadian Group of Painters, which had much in common with the Group of Seven, had strong expressionist traits. Emily Carr from British Columbia created images with motifs from Native American culture on the West Coast islands.
Modernism has long had trouble finding a foothold in Canada. The breakthrough first came in 1948 in Quebec. At the head of an avant-garde movement, the so-called automatism, stood Paul-Émile Borduas. This meant a definitive breakthrough for French-influenced surrealism and abstract art in Canada.
From the 1950s Toronto appeared as the metropolis, also artistically. Foremost was the Painters Eleven group with key figures such as JWG MacDonald, Jack Bush, Harold Town and William Ronald. Among the more internationally-oriented group around the Isaac Gallery are central names such as Michael Snow, Graham Coughtry, Joyce Wieland, Gordon Rayner, Dennis Burton, Robert Hedrick and John Meredith.
In the 1960s and 1970s, Canada experienced a new nationalism stemming from the desire to emancipate from the United States. The nationalist artist group around Jack Chambers and Greg Curnoe became dominant. Modern Canadian art has nevertheless been strongly influenced by American art, especially by Jackson Pollock. A prominent internationally oriented and well-known artist was Jean Riopelle (1923-2002).
It consisted mostly of sculpture in stone, bones, etc., and later graphics. The largest collection of Canadian-Native American art can be found today in the National Museum of Man in Ottawa. Particularly well known are their carved totem poles, of which only a few are preserved.
Native American, Inuit and Asian art have also been an important source of inspiration in modern Canadian art. In the 1960s, Canadians started the KSAN project, which was about revitalizing Native American art, including literature and music. Old traditions, legends and myths were revived and searched for the oldest known patterns and styles of wood carving and other visual arts.