Emily Carr – full of surprises (and a birthday!)

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Today, I was dropping off books at the Emily Carr Library here in Victoria. I arrived to find cake and coffee: a celebration of the birthday of the library’s namesake!

And so, today’s blog is a wee bit about Emily Carr (13 Dec 1871 – 2 March 1945) and her work.

 

One of the first blogs I wrote (click here to read) mentioned Emily Carr and how I just didn’t get what people saw in her art. Why was she so famous? I mean, all she painted was the greens and browns of dark forests and she seemed pretty enamored with totem poles. What was so amazing about that??

 

My view has changed and particularly so after a visit to the semi-permanent Emily Carr exhibition at the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. I discovered not only that her oeuvre covered far more than forests and totems, but when she painted those, they went far beyond my stereotypical idea of her work.

 

Things I learnt: her most well-known work wasn’t produced until Carr was in her 50s and 60s; she went to France in 1910-11 where she came under the influence of the post-impressionists, particularly the bright colour of the fauves; that she began writing books when she was in her late 50s; that her life and art were transformed by her meeting members of the Group of Seven in 1927 and seeing their passion for the Canadian landscape produced in bold, colourful paintings.

 

I have yet to read any of her books, but while at the library I borrowed The Book of Small to consume over the holidays.

 

So let’s have a look at a random selection of work that appealed to me at the exhibition. (All the photos were taken at the exhibition and I apologize for the rather poor quality. I was going to use available images from the Gallery website but found them a bit flat. Use this link to see those versions.)

 

Emily Carr, "Wild Lilies," 1890-93, oil on canvas, size unknown at this time. Carr did this???
Emily Carr, “Wild Lilies,” 1890-93, oil on canvas, size unknown at this time, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria. Carr did this???

 

When I saw this painting I was gobsmacked! Being familiar only with Carr’s later work, it came as a complete surprise. Such a traditional still life, far away from dark forests and totem poles!

It was probably painted around the time Carr attended the California School of Design in San Francisco where she learnt the rudiments of drawing and painting from the staff who had been trained in Europe. The experience certainly must have opened her world coming from the rather rural Victoria. The painting, a favourite of Carr’s sister Elizabeth, was given in gratitude by Carr to the Sisters of St Ann for their care of Lizzie in her illness and dying days from breast cancer. The nuns recently donated it to the Gallery.

 

 

Emily Carr, "Brittany Coast," 1911, watercolour on paper, 11.61 x 10.27 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Brittany Coast,” 1911, watercolour on paper, 11.61 x 10.27 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

Emily Carr, "Untitled (Hillside in France)," 1911, oil on board, 9.09 x 7.2 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Untitled (Hillside in France),” 1911, oil on board, 9.09 x 7.2 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

In the summer before her 40th birthday, Carr set off for France. There, studying with Henry Phelan Gibb and Frances Hodgkins, and influenced by the work of the Fauves, she began to use brighter colours and a more expressive brushstroke as seen in the two paintings above.

 

 

Emily Carr, "Cedar House Staircase and Sunburst," 1912, watercolour on paper, size unknown at this time, British Columbia Archives
Emily Carr, “Cedar House Staircase and Sunburst,” 1912, watercolour on paper, size unknown to me at this time, British Columbia Archives
Emily Carr, "Skidegate," 1912, oil on card, size unknown at this time, Vancouver Art Gallery
Emily Carr, “Skidegate,” 1912, oil on card, size unknown to me at this time, Vancouver Art Gallery

 

In the summer of 1912, Carr, accompanied by her beloved dog Billie, travelled to a number of remote (and sometimes abandoned) First Nation villages in northern British Columbia including some along the Skeena River and on Haida Gwaii. The influence of her studies in France is evident in the bold colour and direct observation.

“I came home from France stronger in body, in thinking, and in work…My seeing had broadened.”

 

 

In 1927, Carr was invited by the director of the National Gallery of Canada to participate in an exhibition entitled, Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art – Native and Modern. Along with First Nation artists, Carr’s work also was in the company of many of the Group of Seven. Her meeting with them, particularly with Lawren Harris, changed her life as an artist. Harris encouraged her to dig deeper. Her work became more abstract and more about feelings than a strict recording of fact. From here on, she found inspiration in the forests, skies and seas of the local landscape. Her vision was finally given free rein.

 

Emily Carr, "Shore and Forest (Cordova Bay)," 1931, oil on paper laid down on canvas, 24 x 26.73 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Shore and Forest (Cordova Bay),” 1931, oil on paper laid down on canvas, 24 x 26.73 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria (This painting was originally owned by Lawren Harris)
Emily Carr, "Tree," c.1935, oil on paper, 22.71 x 35.7 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Tree,” c.1935, oil on paper, 22.71 x 35.7 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

Emily Carr, "Pine Trees and Blue Sky," c.1935, oil on paper, 35.98 x 23.97 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Pine Trees and Blue Sky,” c.1935, oil on paper, 35.98 x 23.97 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

“Dear trees, we don’t stop half enough to love and admire them.” ~ Emily Carr, 22 May 1934

 

 

Emily Carr, "Untitled (Seascape)," 1935, oil on paper mounted on board, 10.43 x 15.94 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Untitled (Seascape),” 1935, oil on paper mounted on board, 10.43 x 15.94 in, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

Emily Carr, "Lagoon at Albert Head," c. 1936 (website) or 1940 (exhibition), oil on paper, 20.27 x 28.54, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria
Emily Carr, “Lagoon at Albert Head,” c. 1936 (website) or 1940 (exhibition), oil on paper, 20.27 x 28.54, Art Gallery of Greater Victoria

 

In all of these later works, I have the feeling of a reality beyond what we see visually, one that I might even say was spiritual. The landscape moves in a way not seen in our everyday version of reality. It’s as if nature and all her parts are revealing each spirit that dwells within.

 

 

Emily Carr and her caravan "Elephant" at the southwest end of Esquimalt Lagoon May 1934, BC Archives
Emily Carr and her caravan “Elephant” at the southwest end of Esquimalt Lagoon May 1934, BC Archives

 

“I think I have gone further this year, have lifted a little, I see things a little more as a whole, a little more complete. I am always watching for fear of getting feeble and passe in my work. I don’t want to trickle out. I want to pour till the pail is empty, the last bit going out in a gush, not drops.”  ~ Emily Carr, 1936

 

What a woman, what an artist!! Much to learn from her.

 

Are you familiar with the work of Emily Carr? What are some of your favourite paintings? I’d love to hear your thoughts about Carr, both her life and her art. Please leave a comment. The easiest way is to reply to me and I will attach it to the blog post.

 

Thanks for joining me on my artistic journey 🙂

 

~ Gail

 

PS. Happy Friday the 13th!!

 

10 thoughts on “Emily Carr – full of surprises (and a birthday!)”

  1. Kathie Smithson

    Hi Gail ….Yup … I too was left GOBSMACKED (man I love that word) by her beautiful lilies. Not that lilies painted by her wouldn’t be stellar in every way, it just seems so different in style form her sweeping forest interiors, skies and Totems. What a delightful find, Gail. Thanks for sharing these beauties.

    1. Glad you enjoyed these beauties Kathie particularly the lilies! It so opened my eyes to see these pieces, so out of the expected look of an Emily Carr painting.

  2. What can I say …..BUT BRILLIANT! You are able to express just what I too have always felt about Emily Carr and now seeing and reading your essay, I have changed my view about her work as well. She also expresses her feelings and thoughts in writing so succinctly. Have a great read over Christmas. And thank you for all the research!

    1. There is soooooo much more to Emily Carr than I once thought. It was wonderful to discover all these other works by her. And as you say, her writing speaks well of her thoughts. I still haven’t got her book yet…..

  3. Hey..!

    I just read your blog and Wow…!! Why have these paintings of Emily Carr not been
    publicized more ??? I thought I knew a bit about the lady but these pieces
    are great.

    Thanks,

    Dad

    1. 🙂
      Thanks Dad. I guess artist’s can get pigeon-holed and I think this is what happened to Emily Carr. I’m so glad to have shared these with you.
      Gail

  4. Hi Gail,
    Loved the scope of Carr’s paintings you showed here. I too find much of her work dark and foreboding, but then I’ve also not been to Haida Gwai, so perhaps I too would change my view based on that experience. I absolutely love the Skidegate painting you have included here. I do believe her life-long struggle with depression had a huge influence on her painting.

    You will love her books…. every one of them worth reading. There is also a wonderful biography of her titled “The Forest Lover” or something similar….which I have, and would be happy to lend you when I am back home in the spring. She is a fascinating woman … in my view as good a writer as she is a painter.

    Cheers,
    Gwen

    1. Yes, I am sure experiencing Haida Gwaii would give us some sense of what Carr was painting. And yet the light keyed painting from Skidegate comes from there too. I will visit there one of these days!

      I look forward to reading Carr’s books. And yes, I’ll take you up on tha offer of a loan when you are home. Or I may see if the library has it.

      Thanks Gwen!

  5. This will be one of my favorite blogs. the painting hung in a large lounge in Queenwood a retreat house operated by the sisters of saint Ann on Arbutus Drive in Victoria. We spent many hours meditating there the picture was real inspiration Thanks for making it a part of a very interesting blog.

    1. Sandy, how wonderful that you remember this painting and that it was an inspiration when you were at Queenswood. I was so surprised that Emily Carr had painted a picture that looked like this!

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