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William Bent Berczy

William Berczy
William Bent Berczy, c.1808
Watercolour with touches of gouache, varnished, on thin wove paper bordered with gold foil circles, laid down on wood
12.3 x 10.7 cm oval
Bequest of Cynthia F. Weber, descendant of the artist, Belleville, Ontario, 1999

The Likeness of my William? The Likeness of that dear Child? Oh, my William, embrace that tender Papa time and time again for me, & tell him that this gift has every virtue with me. It is a masterpiece of art, that recalls the beloved features at all times to my sight.

So wrote Charlotte Berczy from Montreal on 1 September 1808 to her son, upon receiving this portrait of him by her husband, William Berczy. Young William was in Quebec City with his father, who was undertaking several portrait commissions, including one of his masterpieces, The Woolsey Family (National Gallery of Canada).

After many years as a professional portrait painter and art dealer in Switzerland and at the Hapsburg courts of Florence and Naples, William Berczy made his way to London. There, in 1791, he was contracted to recruit German settlers to New York State. When the American venture proved disastrous, Berczy was lured to nearby Upper Canada by its governor, John Graves Simcoe, who offered land tracts to the German settlers in Markham Township. With his wife and two young sons, Berczy crossed the Niagara River into Upper Canada in 1794. His colonizing efforts soon foundered, and in 1802 he moved to Montreal and returned to his first profession, portrait painting. Upon his death in 1813, he left a rich legacy - portraits in watercolour and oil, miniature portraits, religious paintings, even architectural designs - marking him as the finest painter of his era in Canada.

The subject of this portrait also led an interesting life. William Bent Berczy was born in London in 1791. During the War of 1812 he served with the Corps of Canadian Chasseurs and in his later years was active both in the militia and in politics. In 1817 he married Louise-Amélie Panet; they lived first at Amherstburg and later at the Panet seigneury at D'Ailleboust, where he died in 1873. Throughout his life, William Bent Berczy took up the brush, but as a gifted amateur. The National Gallery owns several important works by the younger Berczy, including a group of two watercolours and a painting depicting First Nations people at Amherstburg as well as a recently acquired pair of miniature portraits of his wife and himself, in which he is seen in his red-coated militia uniform.

In 1808, the seventeen-year-old William was already demonstrating a talent for art, and his father chose to depict him as the sensitive young artist, wearing a casual open-necked shirt, blue striped vest, and plum-coloured coat. His face is carefully painted to convey every nuance of the modelling of the flesh, and each lock of hair is graphically described, with the richest highlights added in gouache.

As was, unfortunately, his practice, William Berczy varnished this watercolour to give it the richness and luminosity of oil paint: after 180 years the varnish had become so dark that the image was barely discernible. In preparation for the National Gallery's Berczy exhibition in 1991, Cynthia Weber, the owner of the portrait, and a direct descendant of the artist, authorized the removal of the varnish. The result speaks for itself. ln gratitude for the manner in which this work and four other family portraits were cared for by the Gallery's staff, Mrs. Weber generously bequeathed all five to the National Gallery of Canada.