It might well have been the most emotional moment of Kathleen Wynne’s final news conference as the 25th premier of Ontario.
It is customary for every premier to have their portrait painted and hung on the walls of the Ontario legislature. Wynne confirmed last June that she wanted to get her portrait done soon, “So when little girls tour Queen's Park, they'll see that it's not just older men who can become premier.” As Ontario’s first female premier, Wynne has always felt a special obligation toward the next generation of girls.
After interviewing four or five candidates, Wynne selected Linda Kooluris-Dobbs to do her portrait. Kooluris-Dobbs has been painting for more than 45 years. Two of her other signature works already hang at Queen’s Park: portraits of former premier David Peterson and of former lieutenant-governor Hal Jackman.
“I didn’t want my portrait to be particularly artistic,” Wynne told me during a phone call earlier this week. “I want a good likeness. If it’s going to last a long time, I want it to have a sense of what I really looked like,” she said.
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For decades, artists have been commissioned to paint portraits of past premiers, Speakers of the legislature, and lieutenant-governors. There are dozens of portraits hanging throughout the building, but Wynne’s will be just the third to depict a woman — and, of course, it will be the first ever of a premier. (The two other women are former lieutenant-governors: Pauline McGibbon and Hilary Weston.)
Some of the paintings are steeped in controversy. The portrait of former Speaker Jack Stokes (1977–81) was so unexpectedly avant-garde that there were gasps when his painting was unveiled. When former premier John P. Robarts’s (1961–71) painting first saw the light of day, his friends disliked it so much that they insisted on commissioning another, one that better reflected the leadership qualities that Robarts’s nickname, “Chairman of the Board,” suggested. The original Robarts portrait now hangs in the massive library that bears his name, on the downtown campus of the University of Toronto. When you see it, you’ll understand why his friends wanted another: Robarts looks like a nerdy professor in a tweed jacket, not the larger-than-life politician with movie-star good looks that he really was.
Over the past couple of decades, the official portraits have changed dramatically. For a long time, most of them had been fairly pedestrian, traditionalist efforts featuring nondescript backgrounds. But David Peterson changed all that in the 1990s. His portrait captures a casual, jacketless former premier, tie loosened and top button undone, standing in front of a fireplace. Peterson (who was premier from 1985–90) also managed to get his family in the portrait (another first), having the artist paint a framed photo of the family set atop the mantel above the fireplace.
Peterson’s successor, Bob Rae (1990–95), began a tradition of having something in the portrait reflecting a historic achievement: he was painted sitting at his desk with a laptop open, which was intended to signify that Rae was the first Ontario premier ever to have sent an email.
Similarly, Wynne has asked her artist to include some items of personal significance: for example, a group of Indigenous women gave her a prized eagle feather, which she held during her installation as premier. And her signature red running shoes (the former premier was an every-morning jogger) will also have a place in the portrait.
However, if you don’t know about these aspects of Wynne’s life, they might escape you when you view the portrait. That’s why she’d also like to see an explanatory note placed beside each premier’s portrait that indicates the significance of some of those more elusive details.
And here’s another little secret: Wynne isn’t actually posing for Kooluris-Dobbs. The artist is painting the former premier from a freshly shot photo. (Work on the portrait has begun, although a date for the unveiling has not been set.)
For years, former Speaker of the legislature David Warner (1990–95) has been fascinated by all the artwork at Queen’s Park. He recently published a book called The Artists Who Created the Art at Queen’s Park, which examines not only the work inside the building, but also the sculptures outside. Few Ontarians probably know that the sculptor who created the magnificent “Mother Canada” war memorial in Vimy, France, is also responsible for numerous statues on the grounds of the legislature, including those of our first premier, John Sandfield Macdonald; our first lieutenant-governor, John Graves Simcoe; our longest-serving premier, Oliver Mowat; and Toronto’s first mayor, William Lyon Mackenzie.
We don’t tend to think of Queen’s Park as a repository for some of the province’s most important works of art.
Perhaps we should.