is late fall in Sainte-Adele – a small town located about 70 km
north-west of Montreal, but the weather is warm and dry and feels
rather like summer. Sainte-Adele belongs to Laurentides, a
picturesque part of Canadian Province of Quebec, where French
Canadians began to settle in the first half of 19th century. The car
is climbing steeply uphill and in the next mile it goes steeply
downhill. It's not a coincidence that the first ski resort in the
town was built in 1914 – lie of the ground is really “created
for” skiing. More hotels and the expansion of local ski slopes
followed and the town continued to develop as a tourist attraction.
The mountains surrounding Sainte-Adele are especially beautiful in fall – red and yellow foliage acquires copper and golden hues under the autumn sun and it's hard to switch the view off this charming rampage of colors... I am holding in my hand a fifty-year-old “map” which I received from the artist's niece Ethel Kart (his elder brother's daughter) and trying to locate the “yellow garage door” and “Walkers’ house” in an attempt to find the home of Oscar De Lall without disturbing the privacy of the owners of neighboring homes. But all my efforts were in vain. Of little help in my search had been city hall, an art gallery, a real estate office and potential neighbors... “You know what? Do not look for it anymore” – we were told later by Lall's second wife's niece, Lynn Palmer, “It's still there but it was changed a lot by its new owners. It's not what it used to be...”
A strong man made his way to a small Laurentian river in the 1950’s. He was tired of a failed family life and likely not in the best of spirits – how else could you explain that he left busy Montreal where he had friends, connections and customers for this wilderness. He could rent or buy a home in downtown Sainte-Adele, but, instead, he decided that his new home would be right there. Perhaps he dreamed of finding peace closer to nature or maybe he loved the beautiful Mullet (rivière aux Mulets) from first glance?
The river is just about 25 km long, parts of it are very narrow – you can cross it by jumping from boulder to boulder, but it is changeable and looks tame-less. De Lall painted it in various seasons and its various “moods”. I think that it could be definitely called his Muse. It was always close to him, spiritually and also physically, as the home where he spent the last 20 years of his life was built on its very bank.
He built his house alone from the logs and planks he cut himself from trees standing on the land he bought. It's not clear to me how Oscar was so sure that he could do all that – he lived all his previous life in cities and never built anything. But the house he built was sturdy, sound and pretty comfortable – two bedrooms, living room (its windows were facing beautiful Laurentian Mountains), dining room and his studio. Oscar also built a natural pool fed by the river and a patio around it. Ethel told us that she had only one explanation – “Estonian character”, which she explained as independence, diligence and some stubbornness along with unwillingness to ask for help when there was no great need for it.
But let's start from the beginning. Anno (nee Lobjak) and Juri Lall were farmers and had four sons. One of them – Alexander Karl (born in 1879) became Oscar's father. His mother Julie Kilk was born in 1876. They lived in Tartu and together with many other Estonians looking for better opportunities moved to St. Petersburg in the beginning of 20th century. “In St. Petersburg Estonian men got a job mostly at factories, warehouses, and the railway... At the end of 19th and the beginning of 20th centuries many Estonian farmers became industrial workers. At the same time, there was growth in the number of office workers and intellectuals” (1)
Alexander Lall got a job at Siemens-Schuckert factory which was founded in 1903 (when Siemens & Halske acquired Schuckertwerke) and specialized in power engineering and pneumatic instrumentation. Ethel remembers from her father's stories that he was an electrician, but according to factory records he worked there as a fitter. He was paid a decent salary and the Lall family was well-off for that time. Ethel's father remembered that they often visited the circus, opera and even listened to Chaliapin. Alexander and Julie had three sons: Alexander (born 1901), Oscar (born 1903) and Adolf (born 1905). They lived in an apartment #16 on Moscow Road, 3 – this house no longer exists.
In the middle of the 19th century there were about five thousand Estonians living in St. Petersburg. They had no church and services were performed in various rented places, so they began to consider building their own church. When enough funds were collected, St. John's Estonian Lutheran Church was built in Kolomna on Officer Street – this was a significant event in the life of Estonian diaspora in St. Petersburg. This brick building that was consecrated in 1860 survived all the wars and has now an address of 54A Dekabrist Street (2). There are debates about the architect of the building. While most believe that it was Harald von Bosse, some mention the name of Karl Ziegler.
In 1909 this Lutheran parish became one of the biggest in St. Petersburg. It had about 22,000 parishioners, Lall family being part of them. There was a library at the church and later on brass and string orchestras and a choir. In 1893 a new 4-story building of a church school (that existed since 1844) was built. In this school that survives to this day, Oscar Lall (who was called Os'ka at that time) got his education.
Veronica Makhtina, associate professor of the Herzen State Pedagogical University of Russia, devoted one of her research assignments to the history of the Estonian Lutheran Church and its school. Due to her work and works of another researchers, we can imagine what the school looked like in the beginning of the 20th century. There was a big meeting hall on the first floor; classes, cloak room and the pastor's office – on the second; boys' dorms and principal apartment – on the third; girls' dorms and pastor's apartment – on the fourth. At that time education lasted five years and students studied bible, Estonian, Russian and German languages (French for the separate fee), arithmetic, geometry, algebra, history, geography, natural studies, drawing, calligraphy, sport and needlework (for girls).
That was the education that Oscar Lall got together with his brothers and many other Estonians from families that could afford paying for the education of their children. Remember that I listed drawing among subjects taught at school? Oscar was lucky with it – his drawing teacher was August Jansen, student of the St. Petersburg Academy of Art at that time, who later became well known Estonian painter, educator, professor and public figure. He was known by his pedagogical talent and non-standard approach to teaching. He was also a member of the board of the Estonian National Union and one of the organizers of the big Estonian march in March 1917. “It was the first time in Petrograd (this became new name of St. Petersburg in 1914 – M.L.) when national question was raised”, writes V. Makhtina, “It was the first expression of Estonian self-awareness and their demand for independence” (3). Demonstrators carried many banners, among which there was one from Oscar's school - “Teach us in our mother tongue language”. We do not know how changes in Russian political life affected the Lall family and young Oscar in particular, but we get a general sense of the atmosphere of this time just before the Russian revolution in Estonian diaspora. Ethel remembers that during one of the tumults Oscar's mother was hit by saber on her head. She did not return home and Alexander and his elder son tried to find her, and after a long search found her in the jail hospital. Following this event Julie lost her site for a few years. “Unfortunately”, said Ethel, “I do not know much about her, she had already died when I was born. My father told me that she had beautiful blue eyes”.
The Estonian Republic was proclaimed in 1918 but only in 1920 peace treaty was signed between it and Russia. Many Estonians decided to return to their homeland, among them was the Lall family. In the picture taken at that time, Alexander Karl Lall wears a firefighter's uniform, so he probably became a firefighter back home.
After finishing school, still in Petrograd, Oscar studied in naval school, I could not find which one exactly. Ethel keeps a picture of a young man in sailor's uniform with writing in Russian on the back - “for a long memory from Os'ka, Petrograd, April 13, 1920”. There is information in some Canadian sources that he completed Naval College. Others say that he was in Naval Academy in Estonia. Ethel believes he was just a sailor on a commercial ship. Being a sailor, Oscar served his military duty in the Estonian navy. After that he boarded a commercial ship and spent two years under sail in South America. “... I could not stay because of the terribly hot weather. I missed snow and cold weather”, (4) he said to a newspaper correspondent in 1963. When the ship docked in big cities, Oscar visited local art galleries, which definitely was not a usual pastime for just a sailor. Ethel said that once during that time Oscar became ill and spent some time in the hospital. To pass the time, he began to draw pictures of people around him. Somebody mentioned his abilities and said that he should study art.
There is a document dated 1926 that Oscar lived in Tallinn on 24 Kopli Street and later on 19/I-4 Tartu Road. It was probably a short time interval between his sailing and emigration because in the same year he had already moved to Canada. We know that he probably liked to see the world (and he visited many places as a sailor), but we can only imagine why he decided to move to North America. He arrived by ship in Halifax and later (some sources suggest that not until 1930) moved to Montreal.
There was no Estonian diaspora in Montreal at that time – a major flow of emigrants from Estonia happened after the WWII. But Lall did not seek contacts with them even after, and gradually forgot many words of his mother tongue language. But he considered himself Estonian and proudly said that when being asked about his origin. At that time he drew a little for himself.
Emigrants from Europe in Montreal (including ones from Russia) met in the restaurant “Samovar” owned by a Polish couple. One of the owners painted, wrote poetry, liked to sing and play the piano entertaining his customers. Oskar was fluent in Russian and felt at home there. The place was also often visited by local artists. There Oscar met young Montreal painter Harold Beament, who was five years older, received a good education and was already considered established. They both were seamen in the past and that helped in the establishment of their friendship. Oscar decided to show his drawings to his new friend. Harold was surprised by their maturity and advised a talented young man to attend classes to study drawing and painting.
Oscar hadn’t obtained a systematic art education. Rather, he is considered by the Canadian art community as self-taught. But he did attend classes (probably only for a short time) of Edmond Dyonnet in Montreal and he was lucky to meet the unusual man and artist.
Dyonnet was the son of an industrialist who immigrated to Canada from France in 1875 when Edmond was just 16 years old. The Dyonnet family settled in a small Laurential town. Edmond graduated from the National Institute of Fine Arts in Montreal and then continued his education in Italy. He painted (as Lall did later) portraits and landscapes. After his return to Quebec, he became a teacher in the art school, then in the Ecole Polytechnique de Montréal and from 1925 to 1936 he was a professor in McGill University. He was also a member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art. Edmond Dyonnet was not married and had no children but he had hundreds of students. Dyonnet was a very demanding teacher. He could look at the student's work and give a concise but exhaustive assessment “Rub it out and do it over again”.
First Lall's success as an artist was connected to McGill University. In 1933 he was commissioned (may be by Dyonnet's recommendation?) to produce the portraits of the 27 university professors. These portraits were charcoal drawings (I could not find any traces of these portraits, nobody knows where they are today). Lall's name (he was 30 years old) became known in the art community of Montreal.
Together with Harold, Oscar rented a studio in Montreal. Pretty soon he became very well known as a portraitist. We do not know when he started adding “de” to his last name but all his paintings and drawings are signed “De Lall”. In Quebec, the name De Lall sounded more French and added some charm to its owner. During his first 10 years as an artist, De Lall exhibited almost every year. Among his first exhibited works were his self-portrait and a portrait of rabbi Mayir W. Cohen created in 1933.
Maureen Palmer (one of his second wife’s nieces) owns woman's portrait by Oscar also dated 1933. Maureen is Canadian and it's difficult for her to recognize nationality of the woman on the picture – in her family everybody was sure that it's a portrait of an Estonian woman. But in the list of Lall's work in Montreal Museum of Fine Arts it's called “In the Russian Head-dress”. Portrait is in charcoal on cardboard and shows many details of the head dress and blouse that makes it similar to photography. But the artist's attention is on the face of the woman. She is looking straight ahead, you can sense some sadness in her eyes and feel empathy for her. You are almost sure that her eyes are light-blue, despite charcoal... Another Oscar's wife’s niece, Karla Palmer, owns “Portrait of an Old Woman” which was done about the same time using the same technique. There are dozens of De Lall drawings in the Museum de Lachine. Oscar started his career as an artist with pencil or charcoal drawings and kept using this technique over the years.
His first years as a painter came amidst the Great Depression. Lall told later in his interviews that this was a very hard time for him. But he never tried to find any other job and earned his living only by painting.
In 1938 The Montreal Gazette published information about the exhibition in Eaton's Gallery – one hall exhibited portraits of Oscar de Lall, the other one – his drawings. Author of the information criticized Lall's portraits for being all the same size and depicting subjects in the same posture. At the same time he estimated Lall's drawings as being much better than his painted portraits.
In the 1940’s Lall continued to participate in art exhibitions. He began to paint not only portraits but also city landscapes. One of his portraits done in 1940 was highly praised after his death – it was purchased by the Montreal Museum of Fine Art in 1978. It is a portrait of Johnny Bonefant – an elderly man from a small Quebec town of Sainte-Margueritte. Johnny wears simple shirt, hat on his head and holds a walking stick of raw wood. Maybe he was a farmer taking a short rest...
In 1947 Oscar created a portrait of his teacher Edmond Dyonnet. He also created portraits of various celebrities of that time: humorist Stephen Leacock, Senator T.T. Bouchard, former president of Dalhousie University A. E. Kerr, and many others. In 1946 he became associated member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art.
After Oscar's death, Canadian newspaper Free Estonian published an article about him by Dr. Volik. In the article Oscar was described as an amiable man, fond of women who also paid reciprocal attention to him. Some of them were “married women whose husbands had supposedly lost interest in them” (7). Volik described in very picturesque details a story of one jealous husband's revenge. Once a woman booked an appointment for her portrait. Lall's friend sharing the studio with him suspected foul play and so they called for police and were proven right. Soon after the woman's arrival, she asked for a short break, left and instead two burly men returned, who were neutralized by policemen, Oscar and his friend.
Only in 1944, Oscar married a widow Frances Ross. His family life was sour, which we can see from letters to his elder brother Alexander (Alexander's family emigrated from Estonia to Germany, and after WWII – to USA and they met only in 1967 when Shurka came to visit Os'ka from California. Their brother Adolf stayed in Russia and was sent to exile in Siberia) - “I's a long story, but I can tell you briefly that my family life is falling apart”. (8)
Oscar sent parcels to his brother almost every month, which was a great help to his family going through rough times. Ethel remembers them with great warmth. From his letters written during WWII, we can see that his life also became tougher; people, even having money, bought less art, as no one was sure of the future. “I work as much as I can, but it's harder now to make sales. All the newspapers are full of rumors about war. Well, my work always was more or less whimsical – one day full, then it's empty for weeks, but I got used to it. Besides, as I wrote to you before, I have family problems...” (9). Oscar wrote that his troubles, though, were nothing in comparison to his brother's because “we have food, clothes and roof above our head” (10). After the war he wrote “Life is very expensive now and it was very hard for artists during the war, but at least I can say that I was yet lucky comparing to others” (11).
Oscar wrote to his brother in English and Russian. He confessed that he forgot many Estonian words as he did not use them for a long time. He also said that he had trouble writing in Russian, but many of his letters in Russian that are kept by Ethel are pretty long, thorough, literate and written in accurate handwriting. Oscar also liked to read books in English and German.
In 1951 Oscar divorced Frances. Dr. Volik in his article quotes Lall that his wife was “more as a horse trainer” dealing with him “as if by yanking at the bridle till the corners of the mouth were sore”. The couple had big home in Montreal, but Oscar left everything to his ex-wife and lived for a while in his Montreal studio. It was yet another time in his life when he had to start everything from scratch.
Oscar was about 50, he had no wife, no children and no home. He bought some beer, bread and meat weekly and worked a lot. He led this life for about year and a half. So, we can conclude that it was about 1953 when he decided to build his new home in St. Adele on the banks of River Mullet.
It seems that Oscar's misfortune in personal life did not affect his career much. In 1958 he became full member of Royal Canadian Academy of Art. His graduate work was a portrait of Mrs. Ballantyne that was purchased lately by National Art Gallery of Canada. In many of his female portraits, Oscar elongates the face which draws attention to it. On this portrait (painted oil on canvas) Mrs. Ballantyne is depicted as a middle aged woman definitely knowing her own worth. Viewer's attention is attracted by the long fingers of a beautiful hand.
There is an interesting story related to another female portrait made in the 50’s – the portrait of Lela Wilson. She was wife, muse and a manager of painter York Wilson. By the way, she was 94 years old when she created website devoted to her husband’s art and 7 years prior she wrote a book “York Wilson: His Life and Work, 1907-1984”. Wilson's home was an artists' meeting point and very likely Oscar visited in it when he came to Toronto.
In 1953 York Wilson and Oscar de Lall participated in the RCA exhibition in Toronto. They arrived early (Wilson was accompanied by his wife) and Oscar proposed to make a portrait of Lela while they had time. Then Wilson had a counter-proposal - “and I'll make your portrait”. This improvised competition was completed by the exhibition opening and “the paint was not yet dry” when portraits took their place on the wall... Oscar is shown in white shirt wearing a tie, you can imagine that it was made in a hurry – it's done by rough brush strokes and there is some tension in it. Lela is shown in overcoat and a hat. This portrait is made in calm manner and shows many details; Oscar painted Lela's jewelry and even shown a texture of her scarf.
Despite apparent success in his career, Lall probably had felt that he must change something very dramatically in his life, and so he demolished his past turning next page... Yet it turned out all right. There it was – his own new home built with his own hands and soon after he found new love, which brought happiness and resulted in new paintings – bright landscapes filled with an air of Laurentian Mountains.
He woke up well before sunrise, prepared food for the day, got his paints and canvasses and left into the forest for the search of ... beauty. Oscar liked sunrises a lot, he said that there is special light at this time. Sometimes he left home for a few days. He especially liked fall and winter, I could not find any of his summer landscapes. During winter he used skis and snowshoes and painted at all times when paint did not freeze. He might come multiple times to the same place to catch “proper” light. In contrary to his portraits, all his landscapes are done with palette knife.
And back home he was awaited by his wife Audrey Palmer. They married in May of 1961. Finally Oscar met a woman that loved and understood him. She was handsome, easy going and could become the life of any gathering. Not only did she understand Oscar-artist, she painted a little herself and liked to talk about art. Oscar and Audrey skied and played curling together in local club.
His home was finally filled with children’s voices. Audrey had three brothers and all her nieces and nephews often visited their home. I looked for Audrey's nieces for a few years ... and suddenly found one of them in Ottawa, just few minutes’ drive from my home. Lynn Palmer was only a small girl at that time but she remembers well Oscar, his wedding with Audrey, and his happy hours beside his easel... She owns some of Lall's paintings (among them his self-portrait) and a small album of sketches. Many facts came to life after my meeting with Lynn. On the map I used to look for Lall's house, there was shown his neighbor – the Walkers’ house (John and Jo Walker). It turned out that Jo also was a painter and they became good friends. Jo Walker presented her landscape to the Lall couple and it's now also in Lynn's home beside Oscar's.
Another niece, Cathy Holmes, remembers that uncle Oscar wanted to make her portrait when she was 8 years old. She had chosen her favorite dress – white with green leaves. “My uncle smiled and asked me to change the dress to his blue sweater with long sleeves” (12), remembers Cathy. Oscar often painted all his new relatives and all of them are now owners of portraits made by him.
The second eldest of his nieces, Karla Palmer, remembers with a great warmth her summer holidays spent in Oscar and Audrey house. “I loved Oscar sooo much! He often went alone into the woods with his easel and canvas, but when he worked nearby, I liked to look at him from the distance. I was amazed by his art and I still am... Oscar was taller than Audrey, about 176-178 cm, with salt and pepper hair. His face was rugged and that of a strong man – he was always tanned in summer from a lot of work outside. He had big hands and I was surprised how he can make his beautiful paintings with those hands. At a close look they were just strokes of paint from a palette knife, but from a distance they turned into beautiful landscapes of fall or winter scenes – Oscar's favorite seasons. He spoke fluent English but with some funny accent and had trouble with letter 'v' - he would say something like 'welwet' instead of 'velvet'” (13). Oscar liked dogs. In the beginning they had a Collie named Coco and later on a little dog named Minka. It was Coco on Audrey's lap shown in Audrey's portrait.
In the 1960’s Oscar continued to work hard. It was time when he wanted to pass his knowledge to the next generation. He participated in Portraits in Action project sponsored by the Montreal Museum of Fine Art for art students. Project consisted of multiple sessions during which Oscar painted an arbitrary person from the audience and explained his process. “Art is not a copy. I must feel something of the individual to be portrayed before I can describe that person as I see him or her. One has to have sincere feeling to express oneself... If he doesn't look for likeness too, his work will be something other than a portrait. It may end up being a study.” (14)
Oscar never accepted abstract art and often criticized it “Abstract forms don't communicate anything... Otherwise, abstract art is so personal that no one else can really share it” (15).
It's hard to believe that such a strong man could suddenly become ill, but it happened. He started to lose weight, but tried to treat his illness with remedies. He wounded his thigh badly during one of his painting trips, but also refused to go to a doctor. It became worse, though, and he had to have surgery. But his rehabilitation was slow and it turned out that he had cancer. As his pains became stronger, Oscar asked Audrey to bring him his revolver, but she could not do that. Then he decided on another plan that could only be done by a brave man – he ordered nurses out of his room and disconnected all the tubes still supporting his fading life. Even then his body fought for life for another two weeks...
Oscar Daniel de Lall died on May 21, 1971 at the age of 67, five days before the 10th anniversary of his happy life with Audrey. She continued to live in the house he built for more than 30 years.
After his death Gainsborough Galleries in Calgary organized his personal exhibition In Retrospect showing 42 of his landscapes. “Influenced by the work of Velasquez, Rembrandt, Degas and Manet, he has, since 1930, participated in all leading Canadian Exhibitions. Using realistic style for portraits and impressionistic in landscape, he worked in oils, charcoal and pastel” (16). Landscape “Mullet River” was listed under number 9, but on my opinion it should be number 1 as this small mountain river was presented 'incognito' in many other landscapes of that exhibition.
Maria Lakman, journalist
1. V. Makhtina, “Estonians of St. Petersburg”, PhD thesis, Tartu University, 2006, p.26
2. St. John Chursh was closed in 1930 and re-opened in 2011
3. V. Makhtina, St. John Estonian Church in St. Petersburg, Tallinn, 2011, p.130
4. Dolan S., Be Honest, Le Gazette, 1963, Nov 7
7. Volik Dr, Oscar de Lall. First Estonian full Member of the Canadian Royal Academy of Arts, Free Estonian, date unknown
8. De Lall letter to his brother from private archive of Ethel Kart, date unknown
9. De Lall letter to his brother from private archive of Ethel Kart, Oct 8, 1948
10. The same
11. The same
12. Cathy Holmes letter to Lynn Palmer, Oct 28, 2016
13. K. Palmer letter to M. Lakman, Aug 3, 2016
14. Balfour L., Keeping a Palette in Both Camps, Montreal Star, 1964, Oct 31
15. The same
16. In Retrospect catalogue of the Gainsborough Galleries Ltd., 1972, Nov 13-18