Arbutus Trees

Arbutus Trees by Emily Carr
- Featured Artist-

Arbutus Trees by Emily Carr
- Featured Artist-

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
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.

-Mark Tobey private (c 1928)
- England at the Westminster School of Art in London under Mouat Loudan and    James Black (1899-1901);
- Julius Olsson and Algernon Talmage, St. Ives, Cornwall, Eng. (1901-2);
- John Whiteley at Meadows Studio, Bushey, Eng. (1902) (1904).
- Harry Gibb at Crécy-en-Brie and in Brittany 1910.
- Francis Hodgkins- at Concarneau, (1911)

California, 1891-1893
Alaska, 1906
Paris, 1910
Sweden, 1910
New York,  - In February 1930, Emily Carr met Georgia O'Keeffe at an exhibition of O'Keeffe's paintings.

Canadian Group of Painters
British Columbia Society of Artists
Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (posthumous)

Salon d'Automne, Paris (1910)
National Gallery of Canada (Canadian West Coast Art, Native and Modern)  (1927)
Group of Seven (1930 and 1931)
Seattle Art Museum (1930)
National Arts Club, New York (1945)
Art Gallery of Ontario (1937, 1940, 1945, 1975, 1999, 2003)
Art Gallery of Ontario (Canadian Painting in the 1930s) (1967)
Riverside Museum, New York (Canadian Women Artists) (1947)
National Museum of Fine Arts, Rio de Janeiro, Brazil (Contemporary Canadian Painters) (1944)
Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (Native Arts of the Pacific Northwest – 1951)
Palace of the Legion of Honour, San Francisco (1932)
National Gallery of Canada  (The Group of Seven: Art For A Nation) (1995)
Ontario Society of Artists  (1929,1930,1931)
Canadian Group of Painters
British Columbia Society of Artists
National Gallery of Canada  (1990) (2006)
Birmingham Museum of Art, Alabama (1987)
Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (1977) (1982) (1985) (1999) (2004)
Art Gallery of Ontario  (Permeable Border: Art of Canada and the United States 1920 -1940) (1989)
Art Gallery of Windsor, Ontario (1972)
Stratford Festival, Ontario (1960)
McMichael Canadian Art Collection (1994) (2001)
Canadian Embassy, Washington D.C. (1994)
Mendel Art Gallery, Saskatoon (1995)
Vancouver Art Gallery, B.C. (1971) (2007)(2008)
Canada House, London, England (1979)
Canadian Cultural Centre, Paris, (1979)
Owens Art Gallery (1978)
Dominion Gallery, Montreal (1944)
Robert McLaughlin Gallery (2002) (2004)
Institute of Contemporary Art, Boston, Jan. 30-May 12, 1996.
Béguinage of Saint-Elizabeth, Kortrijk, Belgium, Apr. 16, 1994
Akademie der Künste, Berlin, Germany (1983)
Art Gallery of Nova Scotia (2002)
Montreal Museum of Contemporary Art (1994)
Museum London (1983) (2000) (2004) (2005)


Maria Tippett, Emily Carr: A Biography

M.D. Silverbrooke, Art Historian and Collector, West Vancouver, BC.  His sources were The National Gallery of Canada, the Art Gallery of Ontario, the MacDonald and Westbridge dictionaries, Charles Hill's "The Group of Seven", Helen Pepall Bradfield's "Art Gallery of Ontario" and "Benezit".

Doris Shadbolt, The Art of Emily Carr

John Barton, "Emily Carr: New Perspectives", American Art Review, August 2006, pp. 146-147

* For more in-depth information about these terms and others, see Glossary

This biography from the Archives of AskART:
The following was written and compiled by Jean Ershler Schatz, artist and researcher from Laguna Woods, California:
Emily Carr was born in 1871 in Victoria, British Columbia.  She first studied art in San Francisco, from 1889 to 1895.  She was dreamy and snappish from the start; fleeing to London in 1899 to study art; she came back with an incomprehensible bad habit - smoking cigarettes.  While there she was taken ill with pernicious anemia and spent eighteen months in a sanatorium.  Back in Victoria, she worked as a newspaper cartoonist, then in 1905 settled in Vancouver.  During the summers she visited Indian villages, painting water colors of the magnificent totem poles. She escaped again, this time to Paris, where she learned to paint "the despised, adorable, joyous, modern way."  When her money ran out, she returned to teach art in Victoria.  But no one wanted to learn from her, it was generally agreed that the home town girl's paintings were simply terrible.  To support herself, she opened a boarding house, raised puppies, made pottery and hooked rugs for sale.  She became a frumpy eccentric old maid, whom neighbors laughed and sneered at.
The Indians, in their fishing villages north of Victoria, knew an entirely different woman. Whenever she could get away from Victoria, she appeared among them to paint pictures of their harsh, hushed land and works. By fervently distilling such experiences in her paintings, Emily Carr made her outwardly shabby life an inner triumph.           

In 1912 an exhibition of her Fauve-inspired French work in Vancouver attracted interest, but a show the following year of Indian scenes in the same style was not well received. In 1927 an exhibition of West Coast Art, both Indian and white, including twenty-seven of her paintings, was held at the National Gallery of Canada at Ottowa.  Encouraged by the enthusiastic reception of her work, she returned to Victoria and began painting again.

By the time of her death in 1945 she ranked among the foremost painters in the Western Hemisphere.  Her best work showed great strength and strangeness.

Sources include:
Time Magazine, November 22, 1954
Oxford Companion to 20th Century Art, edited by Harold Osborne
Article in LA Times Sunday, October 14, 2001

Biography from Vancouver Art Gallery:
Emily Carr's life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity — yet the details of her life have been clouded by her own autobiographical sketches and journals, which describe events as Carr herself liked to remember them.  Since the publication of Maria Tippett's Emily Carr: A Biography in 1979, numerous scholars, biographers, novelists and playwrights have attempted to make sense of her recollections and capture her life in print.  As a result, the image of Carr the artist, with her magical forests and magnificent totems; Carr the author, with her stories of nineteenth-century Victoria and her beloved pets; and Carr the eccentric, animal-loving recluse figure prominently in the Canadian imagination.  The celebrity status she enjoys today would come as a great shock to Carr, who for most of her life felt like an outcast, known more for her eccentricities than her artistic achievements.

Emily Carr was born on December 13, 1871, in Victoria, British Columbia, to Richard and Emily Saunders Carr, the fifth child in a family of five girls.  A brother, Dick, was born in 1875. Her father was a British immigrant who, after years of aimless travel, had found success in Alviso, California, selling supplies to miners during the Gold Rush.  He met Emily Saunders, married her in England and in 1863 moved his young family to Victoria, where he established a wholesale grocery and liquor store.  Emily Carr was a rambunctious child who enjoyed running through the fields and playing with the animals on her family's land.  In her early life she enjoyed little companionship with her mother, who had tuberculosis and was frequently bedridden.  Carr was extremely close to her father before an incident in her adolescence — which remains unclear but which Carr later referred to as the "brutal telling" — irrevocably destroyed their relationship.  Her sensitivity and her devotion to art isolated her from her sisters, who failed to understand either her work or her desire to pursue it in spite of financial strain. Throughout her life, Carr remained steadfast in her commitment to art despite her family's lack of support.

Although her greatest artistic production occurred during the years she spent in British Columbia, Carr sought education elsewhere.  In her late teens, after the death of both parents, rather than be subjected to the demands of her overbearing sister Edith, Carr approached her legal guardian to secure funds to attend the California School of Design.  She spent more than three years in San Francisco, where she received a traditional education in the depiction of still life and landscapes.  After returning to Victoria for a brief time, Carr travelled to England and studied at the Westminster School of Art and in the private studios of a number of British watercolourists.  Here too her instruction was in the nineteenth-century British watercolour tradition.  Her year of study in France between 1910 and 1911 proved to be more inspiring: Carr learned from a number of instructors how to paint in a Post-Impressionist style with a Fauvist palette.

She returned to Vancouver in 1911, committed to documenting the First Nations cultures of British Columbia, an exercise that she had initiated in 1907.  During an ambitious six-week sketching trip in the summer of 1912, she produced a great number of watercolours and corresponding studio canvases in her new French style.  These works met a mixed reception and had limited sales, so Carr returned to Victoria to build and manage an apartment house with her share of the family estate.  She was consigned to a life of domestic drudgery for nearly fifteen years until 1927, when her work was included in a National Gallery of Canada exhibition and she first met the Group of Seven.  She found the work of Lawren Harris to be particularly inspiring, as were his words of encouragement and his pronouncement that she was "one of them."  She returned from this eastern trip to begin the most productive period of her career, creating the inspired, powerful canvases for which she is best known.  She also began a lifelong friendship and correspondence with Harris, who acted as her mentor and spiritual guide, especially in the few years after their initial meeting.

Carr's health began to deteriorate in 1937, when she suffered the first of many heart attacks.  As her sketching trips and studio painting became physically harder, she started to focus on literary pursuits.  Ira Dilworth, teacher and CBC executive, became her confidant and literary advisor, replacing Harris as the pre-eminent male figure in her life.  Dilworth's support of her autobiographical sketches gave her both the confidence and the means to secure publication for her work.  Her writing, initially broadcast on CBC Radio, garnered popular appeal and endeared her to a public that for years had been hostile to her art.  Emily Carr died in Victoria on May 2, 1945, after checking herself into St. Mary's Priory to rest, with no idea that she would ultimately become a Canadian icon.

Carr experimented with many styles throughout her lengthy career, and her art approximates trends in the development of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century.  She may have been influenced by Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction, but she never took any movement to its extreme conclusion, though she was always seen as a radical in conservative British Columbia.  Despite changes in her style, approach and intent, she remained absorbed by two principal and often overlapping themes: the "disappearing" First Nations cultures and the western landscape.  She is perhaps best known for the work she produced in the last decade of her life — dark and rhythmic forests, vast spiritual skies and monumental totemic structures — when she developed a style that was entirely her own.

Carr slowly began to achieve commercial and critical success in the concluding years of her career, yet the renown she enjoyed barely compares to the esteem in which she is held so widely today. Her life is irrevocably connected with the Canadian West, the place where she was born and where she chose to spend her life, with only a few brief interruptions. Her independence as a woman when domesticity was expected, her resolve to travel frequently and unaccompanied to isolated First Nations villages, and her devotion to art despite the obstacles, distractions and criticism, remain inspirational.

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