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Emily Carr

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Through her evocative and impressionistic paintings of the West Coast forests and First Nations people, Emily Carr is today one of Canada's best-known painters.  However, her story is an all-too-familiar one of an artist who struggled for recognition in her own lifetime, only to be lionized in the years following her death. 

Canada 1991. Realism/Naturalism. Emily Carr. "Forest, British Columbia".

Canada 1971. Realism/Naturalism. Emily Carr. "Big Raven".

Emily Carr was born in Victoria in 1871 to prosperous parents, both of whom died when she was young.  She was brought up by her family and at the age of 16 was forced to make a living from teaching, as it was felt that her desire to attend art school in San Francisco was "unladylike".  

Ladylike or not, two of her paintings have been reproduced on Canadian stamps, showing her characteristic strong brush stokes and dark colours, which style she developed when studying in Paris 1910-1911.  To the best of my knowledge these two stamps are the only Carr-issues world wide.

It wasn't until 1899, when she accompanied a churchman to his mission at Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, that her career as an artist took a pivotal turn.  The life and arts of the First Nations village had a profound effect on Carr, and, inspired by what she saw, she began using both the landscape and First Nations people as her subject matter.  She soon realized, however, that she needed to learn technique, so she went to London to study landscape painting.  

In 1906, after travelling to Europe, Toronto and the Caribou region of BC, Carr moved to Vancouver, where she taught art classes and rented a studio at 570 Granville Street.  
Still not satisfied that she had the skills needed to produce the sort of painting she wanted, she went to Paris in 1910 at the age of 39, where she absorbed some of the more modern painting techniques from Fauvism and Post Impressionism.  It was during this time that Carr developed her unique style that combined the use of dark colours and strong brush strokes. In her artistic searches she asked this rhetorical question: 

"What am I after -- crush and exaltation? It is not a landscape and not sky, but something outside and beyond the enclosed forms. I grasp for a thing and a place one cannot see with these eyes, only very very faintly with one's higher eyes ... it is a swinging rhythm of thought, swaying back and forth, leading up to, suggesting, waiting, urging the unordered statement to come forth and proclaim itself, voicing the notes from its very soul to be caught up and echoed by other souls, filling space and at the same time leaving space, shouting but silent. Oh, to be still enough to hear and see and know the glory of the sky and earth and sea". 

Emily Carr. Realism/Naturalism. Self-Portrait at the age of circa 39.

Returning to Vancouver in 1912, Carr rented a studio at 1465, W. Broadway to exhibit her French paintings and held another exhibit of 200 paintings in 1913.  Her work, however, wasn't taken seriously.  Some of her paintings were even found to be offensive, resulting in the removal of students from her art classes.  A social outcast at 42, and with no means of support, she returned to Victoria to live on family property and to work as a landlady. 

Emily Carr. Realism/Naturalism. Self-portrait with pet dog.

It wasn't until the late 1920s that her scorned 1212-paintings were shown n Eastern Canada and in a sense "discovered".  She then met the members of the increasingly well-known and influential school of painters called the Group of Seven, who sought to create a Canadian national identity through paintings of the Canadian wilderness. 

With renewed energy and confidence Carr continued her development as an artist.  Over the next 10 years she revisited many of her cherished First Nations locales and painted some of her best known works.

  • Self-Portrait with pet dog, late 1920s.  Scan from "Lonely Planet - Vancouver".  

As her health failed and she became bedridden, she took to writing.  Her book "Klee Wyck", meaning "Laughing one", the name given to her by the Kwakiutl people, is a collection of stories  recalling her life among the First Nations people.  "The Book of Small" chronicles her childhood in Victoria and "The House of All Sorts" describes her years as a landlady.  

Her house in Victoria, the Carr House, is open to the public, and her paintings can be viewed at the Vancouver Art Gallery and the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria, as well as at all of the major galleries across the country.  

Carr produced a rich body of work unlike that of any other Canadian artist, and is regarded as Canada's first major female artist.

Sources and links:

Another female Canadian artist on this site:

Other Realist artists on this site: 

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Many thanks to Paul B. Ohannesian (Canada) for all help and research. 

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