Becoming Montreal: The 1800s Painted by Duncan - Exhibition at the McCord Stewart Museum

Temporary Exhibition

June 2, 2023 to April 21, 2024

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Becoming Montreal

The 1800s Painted by Duncan

Take a trip back in time via the remarkable watercolours of James Duncan. Chronicler of his time, artist James Duncan documented Montreal’s development over a period of five decades, from 1830 to 1880. Exhibited together for the first time, these one hundred or so works offer viewers a unique journey into 19th-century Montreal. As a sort of epilogue, Mental Maps, a digital work created by art studio Iregular uses artificial intelligence to reinterpret Duncan’s work in the form of computer-generated images depicting a composite world of dreamscapes of a Montreal that no longer exists.

Bringing together a variety of the artist’s views, the exhibition offers a vivid look at Montreal and the realities of its residents and focuses on subjects that characterize life in Canada and Montreal’s urban landscape. Visitors will explore the island through the eyes of Duncan: the changing urban skyline from key viewpoints like Mount Royal and St. Helen’s Island, newsworthy political and social events, and street scenes featuring strollers and merchants alike. 

Fascinated by local customs, Duncan captured the city’s lively street life, depicting residents engaged in everyday activities. Enamoured of the changing seasons, he celebrated the colours of fall and created distinctive images of winter.

  • <I>Burning of Hayes House, Dalhousie Square, Montreal</I>, 1852, oil on wood. Gift of David Ross McCord, M310, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>Montreal from St. Helen’s Island</I>, 1878, ink wash over soft pencil on paper. Gift of David Ross McCord, M314, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>Montreal from the Mountain</I>, before 1854, watercolour and touches of gouache over graphite on ivory wove paper. Gift of David Ross McCord, M315, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>Bonsecours Market Scene in Winter</I>, 1850–1860, oil on wood. Gift of David Ross McCord, M316, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>View near Mile End, Montreal</I>, 1831, pen and ink over graphite on paper. Gift of David Ross McCord, M686, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>Montreal from the Mountain Showing the Hotel Dieu</I>, about 1865, watercolour and touches of gouache over graphite on wove paper. Gift of Alan, David, John and Tom Law, M2004.29.1, McCord Stewart Museum
  • <I>Montreal from St. Helen’s Island</I>, about 1851, watercolour and gouache over graphite on wove paper. Gift of Misses Lambe, M21212, McCord Stewart Museum
  • Exhibition of the <I>Horticultural Society at Montreal</I>, October 16,1852, wood engraving published in <I>The Illustrated London News</I>. Gift of Edith Milburn Ross, M21990.21.320.1, McCord Stewart Museum

James Duncan

Born in Ireland, Duncan was the first British artist to settle in Montreal, then Canada’s largest and most dynamic city. At the age of 24, he began memorializing the natural environment of his adopted city. His work, which shows the English colony at its best, was reproduced in engravings and published in international newspapers.

Mental Maps by Iregular

James Duncan’s urban landscapes shaped the vision that people had of Montreal in the 19th century. What would the world look like in the eyes of someone whose reality was based on an artist’s illustrations?
To answer this question, digital art studio Iregular fed the works of James Duncan from the McCord Stewart Museum’s collection to artificial intelligence. Using this data and a generative program, the studio designed a three-dimensional virtual world of computer-generated images made of layers of superimposed topographies. This interactive system produces an infinite number of ethereal digital perspectives.

As visitors wander through this virtual space, their moving shadows hide or reveal unexpected layers. The result is a unique, constantly changing experience that creates shifting dreamscapes derived from Duncan’s work.

Founded in Montreal in 2010, digital art studio Iregular creates audiovisual installations, architectural projections and scenographies, with a focus on interactive and immersive experiences. At the crossroads between art and technology, these artworks experiment with geometry, light, algorithms, communication protocols, and AI. lregular’s work has been shown in 25 countries.

We acknowledge the support of the Canada Council for the Arts.

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