Emily Carr

Art on This Day

Emily Carr, Odds and Ends, 1939, oil on canvas


Today’s Art on this Day puts a female artist in the spotlight. On this day back in 1945, Canadian artist and writer Emily Carr (born on December 13, 1871) died from a heart attack. Hardly fully recognized during her lifetime, she was one of the first Canadian painters to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist style. For her subject matters, she was heavily inspired by the indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. Later in her career, her subjects shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes.


Emily Carr’s career would be an unconventional one. As she painted her best-known works from age 57 and further, she was a late bloomer. She also lived most of her life in an artistically unadventurous society. Carr’s father encouraged her creativity, but it was only after her parents’ deaths in 1891 that she pursued this passion seriously. She took classes at an art school and started travelling. Once back home, she started teaching at the ‘Ladies Art Club’, but only for a month. She was boycotted by her students who did not appreciate her rude behaviour. Carr wanted to deepen her knowledge of the European artistic trends, so she went back to Europe. There, she met and studied post-impressionist and Fauvist painters. Her meeting with modernist painter Harry Gibb, for instance, influenced her career heavily. She was shocked by the audacity of his work and then started to paint in a more vibrant colour palette herself.


Emily Carr, The Indian Church, 1929, oil on canvas

By 1912 she was back in Canada, bursting with energy and inspiration. She opened a studio in Vancouver but soon closed it again as locals did not like her radical bold colour palette and lack of detail. These reactions did not enable her to support her career so she gave up her teaching there and returned home to Victoria where several of her sisters still lived. She ran a boarding house there and gave up most of her painting.
However, over time, the recognition of her art grew as her works came to the attention of several influential Canadians. This impulse encouraged her to go travelling again in the 1920s and 1930s. Her paintings were not only exhibited in Canada but also in London, Paris, Washington and Amsterdam. Her encounter with the modernist Group of Seven, who integrated her as one of themselves, and broke her 15 year long artistic isolation completely. She had her first solo show in 1935 at the Women’s Art Association of Canada in Toronto.
In her last years, Emily Carr suffered from serious health issues that forced her to move in with her sister. She started writing more than painting and was awarded the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction in 1941. Her last paintings show an anxiety about the environmental impact of industry on British Columbia’s landscape and its indigenous people. She suffered her last heart attack and died on 2 March 1945, shortly before she was to be awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia.