Emily Carr

“Oh, the glory of growth, silent, mighty, persistent, inevitable! To awaken, to open up like a flower to the light of a fuller consciousness!” 

Emily Carr, Canadian painter and writer, 1871-1945

Emily Carr was a leading figure in Canadian modern art in the 20th Century. She emerged alongside the Group of Seven, bringing attention to artists of the West Coast. Like many female artists of the time, she did not receive the critical acclaim she deserved during her lifetime.

Her ground-breaking, and distinctive style of painting, which largely depicted old growth forests and First Nations villages, was ahead of its time. Like her contemporaries Georgia O'Keeffe and Frida Kahlo, she went by the beat of her own drum, dressing eccentrically, smoking cigars and adopting a monkey, Woo, who was her muse.  

Carr was born in Victoria, B.C. to a middle class family of eight siblings. Her British father made his fortune in California, and they lived in a custom-built house with a large garden. Victoria was a British settlement, and home to the Songhees First Nation which would later play a significant role in Carr’s work.

A seminal moment in her life (at least in retrospect) was her father’s 11th birthday gift: a copy of The Boy’s Own Book of Natural History. But by the time Carr was 16, both parents had passed away, and she was raised by a strict older sister. She became an independent spirit, riding her horse into national parks on Vancouver Island, before moving to San Francisco to study at the California School of Design, and later to London, at the Westminster School of Art. Never one to stay the course, Carr bounced around different artist communes in England, and took trips to Paris to see the Impressionist paintings she was so fond of. But she often spoke of feeling alienated and didn’t feel she belonged anywhere. Around the turn of the century Carr was hospitalized in a sanitarium for 18 months with a diagnosis of “hysteria,” a common catch-all for female mental illness at the time.

 Back in Vancouver, Carr began teaching art classes for society women, but was discouraged by their lack of commitment. More successfully, she opened an art school for children. A trip to Alaska with her sister would be a turning point, after which Carr spent five years travelling around B.C. documenting First Nations villages. She mounted the largest exhibit ever in Vancouver in 1913, with 200 works from this period. They received mixed reviews for their daring modern style, influenced by the Fauvist style she had learned in Europe, and even the B.C. Museum refused to take them. Discouraged, Carr opened a rooming house, took to raising animals and breeding sheepdogs, and didn’t paint for 13 years. She made a living selling her pottery and rugs to tourists.

Carr finally received recognition in 1927, when she was in her 50s, and was invited to join the Group of Seven in an exhibition of West Coast art in Ottawa, and went on to international fame. When her health made it difficult to paint, she began writing, and won a Governor General Literary Award for her first book, Klee Wyck, about her visits to coastal villages. Woo was sent to Vancouver’s Stanley Park Zoo. Her legacy lives on in the Emily Carr University of Art and Design in Vancouver, an internationally known institution.


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