How many female Canadian artists can you name?
Emily Carr, obviously. And maybe Mary Pratt. Beyond that, for many of us, the list becomes thin. Despite this, Canada has always had an abundance of talented female artists.
If they’ve always been there, why don’t we know their names? As with women in a myriad of fields, the answer comes down to the usual refrain of misogyny, choosing family over career, financial pressures, and for some Canadian artists, choosing to focus on human subjects and urban landscapes instead of the wilderness landscapes that define our national identity.
A name that everyone should know, but doesn’t, is the Beaver Hall Group, especially the female members who comprised half of the artists. Contemporary to the Group of Seven, the Beaver Hall Group lacked the cohesive subject matter of solitary trees and autumn leaves, presenting a more diverse, and much more urban, outlook in their works. While the Group of Seven portrayed Canada’s sweeping natural landscapes, the Beaver Hall Group presented images of people and everyday life.
Despite the romantic notions that permeate popular culture, making a viable living as an artist has always been a difficult prospect. For the most part, artists who are commercially successful are those who have other financial means. The same was definitely true for the women of the Beaver Hall Group, for many of them, their ability to produce art depended on their financial security. When that security ran out, or when other family pressures intruded, they faded from the artistic community.
The works produced by the women of the Beaver Hall Group often feature intimate subjects: street scenes, portraits, nudes, and household subjects. Unlike the male artists in the Group of Seven, independent travel was more difficult for women artists, and their subjects reflected that reality.
Not that these works were soft or without controversy. Many of the Beaver Hall artists painted nudes, particularly of women. Unlike romanticized nudes painted by male artists of the time, these paintings were often realistic and uncompromising. In 1933, Nude in the Studio by Lilias Torrance Newton was removed from the Art Gallery of Toronto because of visitor complaints. Canadian prudishness may have had an additional impact on keeping these works from being recognized both in their own time and as part of our art history.
It was not only nudes that caused controversy for the Beaver Hall painters. The realistic, uncompromising poses of their subjects, such as with Prudence Heward’s painting The Bather, challenged audiences and left many of them feeling uncomfortable.
Any artistic endeavour is an artist’s interpretation and perspective of a subject. Paintings like Nude in the Studio and The Bather shifted that perspective from masculine to feminine, presenting realistic subjects that challenged the notion that female nudes belonged to the male gaze.
The Beaver Hall Group was one of the first groups of artists in Canada to include significant numbers of women. While the Group of Seven captured the Canadian imagination, artists in the Beaver Hall Group pushed the boundaries of Canadian art, paving the way for artists like Mary Pratt. Even though the women of Beaver Hall are not household names, their works pushed Canadian art beyond natural landscapes and empty wilderness, expanding the definition of Canadian art.