||A Review of: The Women of Beaver Hall: Canadian Modernist Painters
by Olga Stein
The Beaver Hall Group was an association of Quebec artists which officially began its existence in 1920. Under the leadership of A.Y. Jackson, the group attracted and fostered the work of artists interested in the newest European trends and unconcerned about the consequences of cold-shouldering traditional approaches to subject representation. Remarkably, unlike its Ontario counterpart, the Group of Seven, the Beaver Hall Group had a large contingent of female artists, and though the Group prided itself on its eschewal of any bias-related to class, gender, or artistic preference-it seems to have been especially hospitable to women and proved an excellent springboard for their careers. The work of ten of its most successful women is celebrated in this book with colour plates and short but not uninformative biographies. The book is therefore of some historical value in addition to being a beautifully produced "art book" richly exhibiting works that deserve to be known and admired.
The ten women on view here are Nora Collyer, Emily Coonan, Prudence Heward, Mabel Lockerby, Henrietta Mabel May, Kathleen Morris, Lilias Torrance Newton, Sarah Robertson, Anne Savage, and Ethel Seath. All ten were born in the last quarter of the 19th century. Kathleen Morris was the last to pass away in 1986.
The Art Association of Montreal, which evolved into the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, was the art school of note in early 20th-century Montreal, and provided a thorough grounding in drawing and painting, supplementing technical studies with frequent lectures and a library of books and catalogues. The Beaver Hall elite begun their education there, but were later encouraged to break free of conventional ideas concerning both art and the role of women in society and the professions.
I'm greatly taken with the portraits of Emily Coonan (Italian Girl, c. 1921, Girl in Dotted Dress, c. 1923), Prudence Heward (At the Theatre, 1928, Girl in the Window, 1941, and At the CafT, n.d.), and Lilias Torrance Newton (Portrait of Madame Lily Valty, n.d.), Self-Portrait, c. 1929, Lady in Black, c. 1936). These works are phenomenal-timeless, existing outside of any period or style, despite the modernist label. Coonan's and Heward's work is often haunting; the women portrayed are in a space of their own, looking inward and sad. Lilias Torrance Newton's models are beautiful, confident, and look to be nearly within reach of the personal liberty and independence North American women enjoy today.
There are superb landscapes here. When Henrietta Mabel May didn't allow herself to be overly influenced by European impressionists, she did unique work (In the Laurentians, n.d., Melting Snow, c. 1925, Summertime, c. 1935). Every reproduction of Anne Savage's work in this book is gorgeous and original (Yellow Days, Lake Wonish, 1960, La Maison Rouge, Dorval, c. 1928, Northern Town, Banff, c. 1938). The same can be said of the distinctive, illustrative paintings of Ethel Seath (The White Barn, Eastern Townships, c. 1941, Pears in a Window, before 1944, Undergrowth, 1954). I don't have room here to prTcis the careers or personal histories of these talented, dedicated women, many of whom served their communities as volunteers or educators, and accomplished a great deal besides their art. I would encourage readers interested in fine Canadian art to seek this book out and get to know the works and the women who painted them. ò