Born in St. John’s, Newfoundland. His mother, a widow, remarried Canadian artist Maurice Cullen in 1910 and they returned to Cullen’s home in Montreal. For the first few months Pilot lived in his stepfather’s large skylighted attic studio which was decorated with mementos gathered by years of travel abroad. In the studio he watched Cullen work on many important paintings and experienced the excitement of visits by artists, architects and collectors. In 1910 Pilot enrolled in the Montreal High School where he was a student until 1914. Many evenings after school he would hurry back to the studio to sketch or carve frames or help his stepfather with studio chores. This gave him the opportunity of learning his craft from the bottom up in the tradition of the apprentice painters of old.
Other evenings he attended night classes of the Council of Arts and Manufacturers given at the Monument National under Edmond Dyonnet where he learned drawing by studying cubes, prisms, spheres and plaster casts. The human form was next with parts of the face – noses, ears, the complete head and finally the whole figure. Later he attended night classes ate the Royal Canadian Academy where he continued to study the human form working from the live model under the direction of William Brymner. At other times he painted landscapes when he accompanied his stepfather on week-end sketching expeditions to the country and summers with his stepfather who was allowed to use the camps by friends and patrons. His R.C.A. School instructor, William Brymner, offered him classes at the Art association of Montreal and knowing that the boy had no money, told him he could pay the Association later, “…in ten year’ time, or whenever you have the money”. So Pilot started classes and continued there until March, 1916, when he enlisted for active service in the army during WWI.
In the spring of 1919 he returned to Brymner’s classes and there won the Wood scholarship. He was considered exceptional for his time and was even invited to participate in the first Group of Seven show which was held in May of 1920. He felt somewhat overshadowed by his stepfather in painting so he decided to develop his skills in etching as his stepfather did not work in this medium. He made eight or ten etchings nearly all of Quebec City and its suburbs which were considered by art dealer William Watson, “…the best etchings ever made in Canada.” In 1929 he wrote an appreciation of etchings by Clarence Gagnon and was probably influenced by him in this medium.
In 1920, while attending a farewell dinner for Edwin Holgate on the occasion of Holgate’s departure for Paris, one of the guests, Walter Hislop, offered Pilot enough money to study in Paris for two years on the condition that he would pay him back when he could. The next week he was on a boat to France. There he studied at The Académie Julian in Paris under Pierre Laurens (1920-1922). He exhibited in the Paris Salon in 1922 and was elected a member of the Salon National des Beaux-Arts. He painted at Concarneau where he met American painter Charles Formuth who had known Cullen and was very helpful in finding Pilot a studio in Paris. Pilot Painted with Canadian painter Edwin Holgate at Concarneau as well in 1922. Holgate stayed at Pilot’s for several months. Pilot returned to Canada this same year and opened a studio in Montreal.
In 1925 he was elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy and his “Quebec from Lévis” was exhibited at the R.C.A. show and acquired by the National Gallery of Canada this same year. He was a great admirer of J.W. Morrice whose influence can be found in his work. Pilot emerged however very much his own man and developed a gentle but colourful approach to painting Canadian landscapes. A second painting of his “Houses, St. John’s Newfoundland” was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1926.
In 1927 he held his first solo show at the Watson Art Galleries and it was very successful. This same year he also travelled and painted abroad in France, Spain and Northern Africa. He returned to Canada with many colourful canvases.
In 1930 he executed the first of two murals commissions for the Montreal High School and the second in 1931. By 1934 he had won his second Jessie Dow Prize, the first being awarded to him in 1927. In 1938 he became Professor of Engravings at the École des Beaux-Arts de Montréal and continued in this capacity until 1940. In 1941 he went back to the Canadian Army. While in Italy he was mentioned in dispatches and was made a member of the Order Of the British Empire (1944). After the war he returned to his chosen profession and in 1948, he held his first Toronto solo show at the Laing Gallery.
In 1952 Pilot was elected President of The Royal Canadian Academy and held that office until 1953 when he was awarded the Coronation Medal. He died in 1967 in Montreal at age 69. In 1969, a retrospective exhibition on his work was organized by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and was also showed at the National Gallery of Canada and the Art Gallery of Hamilton.
Here are Works of Art that we have by Robert Wakeham Pilot