Artist John Saarniit – From Estonia to Canada

In the house where I grew up,  my parents had a painting in the living room that always fascinated me. It was done on location near Midland, Ontario by artist John W. Saarniit. This painting shows up in a number of family photographs over the years, and I can remember gazing at it and making stories about it when I was young. In this photograph, I am standing with my siblings in front of the painting circa 1961. That’s me in the lower left.


The painting is now hanging in my dining room and every time I look at it it gives me joy. The frame is unusual by today’s standards, and there is a plaque at the bottom of the frame that says “By John W. Saarniit”.


Click to enlarge this one.




Saarniit’s Art Gallery

Sunnybrook Plaza

660 Eglinton Ave. e. Toronto

567 Roehampton Ave. (hand written below printed address)

BY J. W. Saarniit

TITLE Place Near Midland

PRICE $90.00

#27 is hand-written in the upper right of the label.

A second label gives the address more fully on a printed card as 567 Roehampton Ave., Toronto. It looks like he moved the gallery at some point. As you can see, the phone numbers are very short and use alphabetical designations (I am assuming “HU” stands for Hudson), proof that Toronto was very small in the old days.


When I looked Mr. Saarniit up I found scant information, but I saw another blogger with a similar picture. The artist is dead now, and considering how popular he was and the newspaper and magazine articles about him, it seems a shame that there is not more information about him.

So for all the people trying to track down some information on J.W. Saarniit, I have typed up verbatim, the sheet of paper that is attached to the back of our family’s painting. He seems to have had a trying time but persevered and was successful as an artist, once settled in Canada.


Saarniit was born in Estonia in May of 1909. From 1925-1932 he studied with the Academy of Arts in Tallinn, Estonia, and graduated with a diploma in 1939. He studied in several European countries: Finland, Sweden, Poland. He has independent exhibitions of his paintings in Estonia, Finland, Russia (1943), Denmark (1947), Sweden, Stockholm (1948), Canada, Halifax, N.S., Lord Nelson Hotel (1948), Toronto, Laing Gallery (1949), Montreal (1950), 1951–1953 coast to coast, London, Ont., University of Toronto, Peterborough, Winnipeg, Oshawa, Vancouver etc.

In 1941, when Russia suddenly invaded and occupied the Baltic States, he was conscripted into the Russian Army and later Saarniit was thrown into a concentration camp in Siberia. With many difficulties he managed to escape from the concentration camp across the battlefields, and fled through Nazi-Germany to Finland. While living in Sweden he organized, for the first time in history, an anti-Communist exhibition.

In the Fall of 1948 Saarniit with many other countrymen, crossed the Atlantic Ocean by small boat and arrived at Halifax, N.S. The Immigration authorities of Canada recognized the artist Saarniit as a legal immigrant. Articles have been written about him and his works in newspapers and magazines of which only a few may be mentioned here: Halifax Chronicle, Halifax Herald, The Standard, Chicago Tribune, Toronto Star, The Telegram, The Globe and Mail, London Press, Time etc.

At the end of this long voyage, Saarniit has found a new and friendly country, Canada, where he is settling down and has learned to know the beauty of this country which he tries to show in his paintings. Saarniit is highly recognized by art critics.

We had good family friends who were from Estonia (we think they gave this artwork to my parents), plus Midland, Ontario was where our closest family friends kept their boat, and the father drowned there, so it’s important to me to have this picture for those reasons as well.

I was reading through meditations last night from the book by Deng Ming-Dao called 365 Tao: Daily Meditations, and it talks about the world being terrible and full of suffering, and yet we can also enjoy happiness when it comes to us.

“Life has its sad and happy moments. I accept them all. Life has its times of dispassion and utter serenity. Those are the moments that I seek. They give me my path through the myriad phenomena of this existence.”

So here’s to the John Saarniits of the world, who go through terrible times and suffering but find a path to serenity through their art, and pass it on.



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4 Comments on “Artist John Saarniit – From Estonia to Canada”

  1. I have a painting was given to me as a gift for the famous Artist Tallim,Estonia . born . Joann W. Woldma Saarniit . This painting is in a very good condition ,and I offer it for sale . I came to know that he was of the famous artist and he was the first Artist organized an exhibition Anti communist 1948 in Stockholm . Date 19 Apr 2014

    • JJ ColourArt Says:

      Thank you Mr. Almaflahi, but I don’t have the money to buy a painting. How interesting to see that you have a painting in your collection, I think you should hang onto it and enjoy it.. (For your privacy, I have taken the contact details out of your message.)

  2. Dane Melvin Says:

    Joann Saarniit has a younger brother, age 93, living in West palm Beach. We have 5-6 of Joann’s paintings in the Family. His grandson was visiting her recently. He is from Canada and working in Fla. There are many of Joann’s paintings in the extended family also We love them and display them ..

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