Monday, November 7, 2016

1871-1945: Emily Carr, Canadian

Emily Carr is one of Canada's most renowned artists. She is unrivaled as an interpreter of the First Nations people and the forests of British Columbia.

Background: Emily Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia, the 7th of 9 children. Her parents were English settlers.

An interesting detail for Sunnyvale residents is that Emily's father, Richard, had made his fortune in nearby Alviso, selling supplies to miners during the Gold Rush. After marrying an English girl, he moved his family to Victoria, where he established a wholesale grocery and liquor store.

When the Carr family settled on Vancouver Island, it was a colony of Great Britain; they practiced English customs, they built a lavish home in the English fashion, they sternly preserved Presbyterian tradition.

Emily and her sisters
Emily is lower right
Emily had 4 older sisters and 4 brothers; however, only one of her brothers lived to adulthood.

When Emily was 14, her mother died. Her father died two years later, leaving her eldest sister as head of the family.

Training: When she was 18, Emily went to San Francisco to study art at the Art Institute; she spent 3 years there from 1890 to 1892.

Career: Emily started her career as an artist in the traditional way: she taught art classes at her home studio in Victoria while developing her own work. But she didn't fit in well with the staid English community, and she was never satisfied with her own training.

Emily's first body of work documented the First Nations cultures of British Columbia. In 1890, at age 27, Emily traveled by steamer up the west coast of Vancouver Island to sketch and paint the native people.

In 1899 she travelled to England to receive further training in London at the Westminster School of Art, and later at private schools in Cornwall. Her stay there was lengthened by a mental breakdown of some sort that required an 18 month stay in a Sanatorium. She didn't return to Victoria until 1905, when she was 34.

Emily resumed her studio practice and gave classes for children that were highly successful.

In 1907, Emily and Alice made a field trip to Alaska, deepening her commitment to painting scenes of aboriginal life before it disappeared.

Emily was conscious that Victoria was an outpost and Paris was the center of modernist developments in art. In 1910, she and her sister Alice, went to Paris to study at an art academy. She went on to study with a modernist painter in Paris who influenced her to adopt a vibrant color palette. Her study in Paris had a formative influence on her style. During her stay in Paris, 1910-1912, Emily's paintings, along with those of a few other Canadians, were exhibited in a major Salon, along with Bonnard, Matisse, and other modernists.

When she returned in 1912, aged 41, Emily embarked on an extensive excursion, traveling to the islands of the Northwest Coast of British Columbia to continue her project of documenting the culture of native people.

In 1913 she organized an exhibition of two hundred works from this period at a hall in Vancouver. It represented the culmination of five years of work—it was also the largest solo exhibition mounted by an artist in Vancouver at that time. She also gave a lecture on Totems, explaining indigenous culture.

Unfortunately, the reviews of her exhibition were mixed, and when she offered the paintings to the new provincial museum they were refused. Their daring modern execution was thought not to accurately represent the totem poles and villages she had so assidously been recording.

Emily concluded that she would not be able to earn a living as an artist. She returned to Victoria and used her share of the family estate to build an apartment building. For the next 15 years or so she ran the boarding house and raised Old English sheepdogs, seldom making art.

Meanwhile, Emily's existing body of work was coming to the attention of people who were interested in tribal people. Her struggle to establish a serious reputation got a boost in 1927—she was 56—when a major exhibition of West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in Ottawa featured 26 of her Indian paintings.

At this first big exhibition, Emily met members of an art group known as the Group of Seven, a group of modernists. The founder of this group, Lawren Harris praised her work and encouraged her to resume her career as a serious artist. Lawren also introduced Emily to Theosophy, and under its influence she began to form a new vision of God as nature.

Her association with Lawrence and other artists spurred a new period of creativity when she painted many of her most familiar works. She continued to make painting trips to the remote aboriginal villages in the north, but her goal changed from documentation of native cultures to painting landscapes that expressed her spiritual beliefs.

In the 1930s her work was exhibited in several major cities in Europe, the U.S. and Canada.

Emily's health started to deteriorate in 1937 when she was 66. With her ability to travel curtailed, she turned her attention to writing. She wrote several works of fiction and autobiography. Her autobiographic sketches were broadcast on radio and gained her popular appeal.

Her final paintings showed the environmental impact of industry on the landscape she loved.

Private life: In 1898 Emily met William "Mayo" Paddon on a steamer returning home from her first voyage to the north of Vancouver Island. He fell in love with her and proposed to her several times, even following her to England to propose again, which she turned down. While Emily was in England, from 1899 to 1905, she also had a breakdown that was diagnosed as hysteria; perhaps it was connected to the romance that she felt forced to give up. Emily deemed that she couldn't realize her true talent if she were married. She loved painting more than anything else.

Self-portrait, 1939
After Emily reconnected with her art career in 1927, when her work was included in a major show in Ottawa, she became friends with a Canadian painter named Lawren Harris, the founder of the Group of Seven. He praised her work, and they began a lifelong friendship and correspondence.

After Emily started writing, in her late 60s, an educator and broadcast executive named Ira Dilworth became her confidant and literary advisor.

Emily suffered a series of heart attacks and strokes, and finally died in her home town of Victoria at the age of 73.

I got a chance to photograph 3 of Carr's works at the Art Gallery of Ontario in Toronto, which are shown on this page, along with the best of Wikiart.

Wikiart collection: Emily Carr


Indian War Canoe (Alert Bay), 1912
Internet grab

Indian Church, 1929
Photo by Jan

Kispiox Village, 1929
Toronto / Jan's photo

Photo of Totem pole at Kispiox, 2008
Internet grab

Big Eagle, Skidegate, B.C., c. 1930
Internet grab

Blunden Harbour, 1930
Internet grab

Red Cedar, 1931-1932
Internet grab

Trees in the Sky, 1939
Toronto / Jan's photo

Strait of Juan de Fuca, date not given
McMichael Collection / Internet

British Columbia Forest, date not given
AGO / Internet