Emily Carr

Emily Carr, Farhat Art Museum Collection

The painting by Emily Carr is part of the Farhat Art Museum. It is watercolor on paper. It measures 13x11inches.

One of Canada’s leading artists, Emily Carr worked with an Expressionist* painting style on native subject matter that was groundbreaking because it focused on capturing images of the vanishing First Nations’ culture of British Columbia, especially along the Coast Salish around Victoria and the Nootka on the west side of Victoria Island. Although practicality intervened, her initial goal was to paint all the totem poles and villages of these Indians, but she did succeed in stirring ongoing awareness of their unique civilization and its meaning to Canadian heritage. Her interest in these subjects grew from living in Victoria, which had a large Indian population that initially had been crucial to survival of the white settlers, including the Carr family, but later became discriminated against by succeeding generations of people they had helped.

To the disdain of some critics, she did not include Native Indians in her paintings, only their artifacts. Her biographer, Maria Tippett, responds to this criticism by writing that although she did not romanticize these people in her paintings, “there is no doubt she was genuinely sympathetic towards them.” (xii) Tippett describes Carr as a “highly complex woman: a person of strong character, not always agreeable, who was the victim of anxieties and guilts; who had a highly perceptive and penetrating mind while being unintellectual, intuitive and spiritually inclined. . . The period Emily Carr lived in, 1871 to 1945, was not one that encouraged a woman of independent spirit to have a life of her own. Yet in conservative Victoria, and against numerous obstacles, that is what Emily had. . . An unbroken thread running through her adult years was her persistent examination of her relationship to the Indians, to the forest, and to God. . . her efforts were rewarded in a crowning achievement: she saw the landscape and the Indians in a new way, and through her art she enabled others to do so too.” (xv, xvi)

She traveled extensively among them, and from what she learned about these peoples, gave numerous public lectures, wrote newspaper articles, and organized exhibitions that included portraits by other artists of these Indians. As a writer, Emily Carr also did a series of autobiographies that brought her attention.

Another aspect of her painting career was the many dark imposing depictions of the country’s dramatic coastal views.

Emily Carr was born and raised in Victoria, British Columbia on Vancouver Island by parents married in Oxfordshire, England. The mother died when Emily was fourteen, and the father, died several years later, having been a shipper of goods between England and San Francisco where he went during the Gold Rush. Eventually settling in Victoria, he became eccentric, and converted to Presbyterianism, imposed a strict religious regimen on his family.

Although something happened in the father-daughter relationship that Carr was unwilling to elaborate, he remained a key influence in the development of her early art talent that was obvious in the family. She was his favorite child, and he made sure that she had lessons when they were not generally available to young people. She studied once a week with a Miss Emily Woods, later took private lessons when her Central Public School curriculum did not have art lessons, and eventually joined a class of Miss Eve Withrow (1858-1928), a portrait and still life painter, who had studied in San Francisco.

Carr lived most of her life in the vicinity of her birth, and spent much time in her childhood exploring the environs of Victoria, becoming especially fascinated by city scenes and the open landscape. As a young woman she traveled extensively including to San Francisco for art study; Canada to the west coast of Vancouver Island, Charlotte Islands, Montreal, Ottawa and Toronto; England to London, St. Ives and Anglia; and France to Paris and Concarneau.

At age twenty, she was able to use family estate funds to subsidize several years, beginning 1891 and ending in December 1893, in San Francisco to study art at the California School of Design* where many of the teachers had studied in Paris at the Ecole des Beaux Arts*. Unlike most art schools, women were allowed in classes to draw from nude models, but a sense of propriety kept her away from attending those sessions. She studied the Antique with the school’s Director, Arthur Mathews, still life painting with Amadee Joullin, and landscape painting with Raymond Yelland. It is likely that the pueblo painting she saw of Joullin’s influenced her interest in Indian culture.

However, she found much of the repetition of painting from prescribed subjects less-than-challenging, but felt excitement during her third year when she joined, every Wednesday, thirty or forty men at the ferry terminal from where they traveled to rural areas across the Bay and painted ‘en plein aire’, out-of-doors. Her experiences from this time had a life-long influence on her, something she often mentioned, and one whose routines of creativity became those of her life. She learned to explore places on her own, especially of her native county; live independently; enjoy new friends including cartoonist Jimmie Swinnerton, and Australian-born painter, Nellie McCormick; and to feel as though she was professional enough to exhibit her work with ‘the best of them’.

Returning home, she earned enough money by teaching childrens’ art to finance a five-year trip to London, 1899-1904, where she studied at the Westminster School of Art* and also studied at Cornwall. During this time, in 1902, she had a physical and mental breakdown and spent time in an English sanatorium.

Feeling as though she was a failure, she returned to Vancouver where she painted and taught art, becoming a modernist in style. In 1910, she traveled to France, wanting to learn about the ‘new art’. She again fell ill, but her career was permanently affected by the new styles she learned; her palette became brighter and style much looser. She found that many people were shocked by her work, when she exhibited paintings in her “new style” of Aboriginal subjects in Vancouver in 1912 and 1913.

She returned to Victoria and moved into Hill House, and had her studio there. In 1927, Eric Brown, the Director of the National Gallery of Canada, visited her and was stunned by the quality of her artwork. He arranged for her work to be exhibited, and from that time participated in national and international exhibitions and had several solo exhibitions.

In 1936, she moved from Hill House to rental property in James Bay, and the next year had the first of a series of heart attacks. With diminished energy, she turned to writing. In 1940, she moved in, unannounced, with her sister because her landlord had sold the place she was renting, and the next year she won a Governor General’s Award for her published autobiographical piece, Klee Wyck.

Emily Carr died on March 2, 1945, at age 73.

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