Box 15-013 SPECTATOR ARTICLE BY REGINA HAGGO ABOUT RUBY MCQUESTEN'S ART SHOW AT ART GALLERY OF HAMILTON
Oct 26 2011
To: Hamilton Spectator Hamilton Spectator Hamilton Ontario
HAMILTON'S RUBY SPARKLES
Photo, Landscape by Ruby McQuesten, Landscape with Cows, watercolour on paper, circa 1899-1907. Special to The Hamilton Spectator Source: Special to The Hamilton Spectator
Regina Haggo,October 26, 2011
It's the stuff of movies and Victorian novels: a young woman lets her brother shine at the expense of her art and, ultimately, her life.
It's also a real-life story, made in Hamilton.
The budding artist is Ruby McQuesten, elder sister of Thomas B. McQuesten, an eminent Hamilton lawyer and politician, responsible for the building of many roads, bridges, parks and gardens not only in Hamilton and Niagara, but throughout Ontario.
The McQuesten family lived at Whitehern, the big stone house on Jackson Street West from 1852 to 1968. The family matriarch, Mary Baker McQuesten, mother of seven children, decided son Tom was going to do great things. So she sent Ruby to Ottawa to teach and the money she earned went toward Tom's university education and law degree.
Ruby eventually contracted tuberculosis and died in 1911 at 31.
But Ruby, a talented watercolourist, never complained. Her letters to her family remained cheerful to the end. Ruby's watercolours and excerpts from her many letters are featured in Ruby McQuesten: The Jewel of Whitehern. The exhibition at the Art Gallery of Hamilton comprises more than 50 of Ruby's watercolours, drawings and pyrographs (images made by burning the surface of wood).
Like many female artists of her generation, Ruby depicted subjects deemed traditionally appropriate for women, such as still lifes and landscapes. Many contemporary women artists created images of children, but Ruby shied away from depicting the human figure.
In her still lifes, Ruby juxtaposes nature and art, posing fruit and flowers next to human-made vessels: white daffodils compete for attention with a blue and white china vase, strawberries spill out of a small container, green grapes lie on a table near a pitcher.
Her soft-edged landscapes look similarly old-fashioned. In Landscape with Cows, painted around 1900, Ruby turns to a bucolic theme and adds a couple of small cows to her rural scene.
She takes a wide view, leading the eye across a lush, grassy foreground, past autumn-coloured trees to a low horizon, lying under a vibrant cloud-filled sky.
She enlivens her composition by avoiding symmetry and letting the tall trees on the right spread out and rise. This kind of distraction provides an inspired contrast with the smaller trees on the left.
In Landscape with Rowboat and Riverbank, Ruby fills the left side with low-lying land and tall trees which cut off recession. By contrast, the right side reveals a greater sense of depth.
She fills the sky with swirls of blues and golds, letting it serve as the main vehicle of movement and expression.
Ruby's style is lifelike at a time when many European artists were beginning to experiment with abstraction.
I can't help but wonder how Ruby's art would have changed had she lived longer.
Regina Haggo, art historian, public speaker, curator and former professor at the University of Canterbury in New Zealand, teaches at the Dundas Valley School of Art.
What: The Jewel of Whitehern
Where: Jean and Ross Fischer Gallery, Art Gallery of Hamilton, 123 King St. W.
When: until Nov. 13 
The Hamilton Historical Board has designated 2011 McQuesten Year. Go to whitehern.ca for more information.
For more on Ruby McQuesten's life, read Mary J. Anderson's book, Tragedy and Triumph: Ruby and Thomas B. McQuesten (Tierceron Press, $26.40)