Canadian, 1815-1872

Running the Toll Gate

ca. 1863, oil on canvas
signed C. Krieghoff lower right
16 x 25 1/4 in., frame: 22 1/8 x 31 1/4 in.

  • Provenance: with Vose Galleries, Boston, Massachusetts; purchased from the above by Mr. John du Mont, Greenfield, Massachusetts, November 26, 1958 (accompanied by a copy of the original bill of sale); by descent within his family.
  • Literature: Harper, J. Russell. Krieghoff. University of Toronto Press: 1979. Cat. No. 30 (one of 26 in the entry).

    As his family recalls, John S. du Mont (1919 – 2005) was a sportsman, historian, author and collector of guns, American furniture, and Fine Art. He was known as the "Dean of American Gun Collecting" by his contemporaries. It was on one of his fishing trips to Canada that he was introduced to the paintings of Cornelius Krieghoff by his Canadian cousin. In his search for more information about Krieghoff and his paintings, he corresponded with authors, museums and other collectors, including Lord Thompson of Fleet. He viewed as many of the artist's work as he could, not only to learn the nuances of Krieghoff's techniques, but also to applaud his sense of humor and appreciation of everyday life in Habitant Canada. He considered this painting of Running the Toll Gate the epitome of both. Robert Vose agreed, writing to du Mont in 1958, "You really have a wonderful picture there. I strongly doubt that we will ever find one of that interest or quality available again."

    Cornelius Krieghoff was an iterative artist, returning to the same subject repeatedly on numerous occasions. According to J. Russell Harper's 1979 monograph, there are 30 known examples of the subject Running the Toll Gate, dating from 1857-71, thus spanning the apex of Krieghoff's artistic career. Harper writes, "Krieghoff spent much of his adult life as an observer and recorder of the Canadian scene, and his paintings emerge as significant historical documents of Canadian society in the mid-nineteenth century. At the same time, his canvases are entertaining and cleverly executed works of art, thanks to his wit and keen awareness of his surroundings….about 1856 Krieghoff conceived the composition for what would prove to be his most successful habitant genre subject, bilking the toll. He painted it repeatedly throughout the years for an audience delighted by such saucy escapades. "

    The present work is one of Harper's 30 known examples of Running the Toll Gate, and it was examined by Harper in the early 1970s as part of his extensive research in preparation for his book. In fact, John du Mont was one of the few private collectors Harper singled out in the introduction to his book, thanking him and noting his enthusiasm for the artist. Today, few depictions of Krieghoff's Running the Toll Gate remain in private hands; this is only the second example to come up at auction in the past 20 years.

    There is an immediate sense of motion in Running the Toll Gate. Three villagers have rushed through the toll on their sled, refusing to stop to pay the required tariff. Their horse's breath and the snow kicked up around its feet highlight the pace at which they speed by, with the first figure cracking his whip to spur the horse on. The second two figures, however, have taken the time to taunt the toll-keeper, with one thumbing his nose at the man and the other raising his bottle in the air in celebration. Meanwhile, the aggrieved toll-keeper leans toward the villagers, his jaw set and his fist clenched in frustration. The toll-boy looks on in shock, his mouth agape and his arms raised in protest, while the black dog in the foreground barks his disapproval.

    Krieghoff carefully considered each detail in his work, precisely rendering elements ranging from the construction of the horse-drawn worksleigh to the color of the villagers' sashes. Although it is the figures that bring action to the composition, Krieghoff still documents the everyday aspects of the toll, including the snow-roller at right (not recently used, as evidenced by the potholes in the foreground), and the tariff board on the toll-building at left. While the details in the foreground have a high degree of verisimilitude, the landscape on the horizon is one of Krieghoff's imagination, one that he employs as an artistic device to guide the viewer's eye through his composition. The left-to-right diagonal of the snowy road is reinforced by the linear perspective of the spruce trees on the right of the composition. This diagonal is further demarcated by the solid toll-house on the left of the composition. Thus, the viewer's eye is naturally drawn to the center of the composition, the open toll road, with the sleigh having just passed through. From that negative space one's eye is then cast to the brightly clad figures on the sleigh, the middle figure's thumb-to-nose gesture and intent stare point directly at the irate toll-keeper, this unspoken communication breaking the snow-laden boundary between the two figure groups.

    A 1979-80 exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts provided a close analysis of eight representative examples of the 30 known paintings of Running the Toll Gate, and this analysis can in turn be applied to the subject work. For example, the presence of the black dog on the left of the subject composition indicates that the work was painted ca. 1863. Further supporting this date is the fact that the toll-house is "Type-B," an example of architecture from the Montreal region. The addition of the small vestibule (to block the cold from the main house), the clapboard siding, and the hip-roof with central chimney are all indicative of this type. Furthermore, the subject work relates most closely in overall composition, building detail, and figure placement to the 1863 example now in the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, New Brunswick.

    Both critics in Kriegoff's time and modern art-historians have argued that Running the Toll Gate's subject matter is significant because of the social complexities it depicts: while at first glance it simply presents an amusing snapshot of village life, one soon realizes that it also sheds light on the ever-present tension between the Franco-Canadian villagers and the English-imposed systems in 19th century Quebec. In this way, Running the Toll Gate can be understood as a key example of the nuanced approach Krieghoff took to depicting the complex dynamics of habitant life, while also appreciated as an engaging, impressive, and well-composed work of art.
  • Condition: A third party condition report is available by request.

    Please note: All property is sold "AS IS" and any statement, whether oral or written, is given as a courtesy and shall not be deemed as a guarantee, warranty, or representation of the authenticity of authorship, physical condition, size, quality, rarity, importance, provenance, exhibitions, literature or historical relevance of the property or otherwise. The absence of a condition report does not imply the item is in perfect condition.

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