Artist Emily Carr: A Biography and Reflections

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Emily Carr's painting Autumn in France
Autumn in France, painted by Emily Carr in 1911. Photo via Wikimedia Commons
Emily Carr's painting Autumn in France
Autumn in France, painted by Emily Carr in 1911. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Emily Carr is a name synonymous with words such as “artist” and “Canada,” but I would also like to add in “environmentalist” and “writer” too. She was a woman of many talents, whose legacy lives on. Emily Carr is perhaps best known for her mesmerizing portraits of Canada’s west coast and Native cultures.

Early Days of Emily Carr

December 13rd, 1871, was the day that Emily Carr was born into the world. The location was Victoria, British Columbia, Canada. If that place sounds familiar, it may be because you’ve heard me talk about it; yes, that is where I currently live.

Carr grew up in Victoria with English parents (Richard and Emily), one brother and four sisters. Her parents had three additional sons, but they either died at birth or soon after death. Carr’s father encouraged her in her artistic inclinations as a child. She took art lessons however she did not seriously begin her painting career path until after he had passed away in 1888. There was no documented artistic history in Carr’s family.

After the death of both of her parents, Emily Carr travelled to San Francisco to study art. At this point she was a late teen. Following that experience, she went to England. These travels were where she acquired her basic painting skills. Much further art skill development came when she later went to France. In France, the freedom of expression was vast and welcomed, which allowed her an openness to her artistic methods. There she began to practice more modern ways of painting. She studied for one year at the Academie Colarossi in Paris. The subject? Art.

Emily Carr is exploring nature
Emily Carr, out in nature. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Development as an Artist

By the 1920s, Emily Carr decided to return to Victoria. It was at this point that she had a major development in her artistic career. She began to meet with the Group of Seven, which was a circle of Canadian landscape painters. Within this group, and with their influences, she began to paint about Native culture and the rainforest in BC. In attempts to learn more about the customs and lifestyles of the First Nations people, she sought out time with the tribes within their villages.

Her painting drew the attention of Eric Brown of Canada’s National Gallery. The Director of the Gallery, Brown invited Carr to place an exhibit of West Coast aboriginal art. The Ottawa-based Gallery exhibit was such a success that it also travelled to Toronto and Montreal. The exhibit consisted of 26 of Emily Carr’s oil paintings, as well as pottery and rugs she made that had aboriginal-influenced designs on them.

As well as being known for her paintings, Emily Carr has also been acclaimed for her writing efforts. She made the transition to writing after her health declined. In 1937, when she had a heart attack and a second one in 1939. This was followed only one year later by a stroke.

She wrote several novels, many of which documented her time spent with the First Nations groups. Her book Klee Wyck published in 1941 and it won her the Governor-General’s Award for nonfiction. It was an autobiographical book of her experiences with the First Nation’s people, and it also included her sketches. Other books by Carr include The House of All Sorts (published in 1944) and The Book of Small (1942 publication). Carr passed away on March 2, 1945.

Gravestone of artist Emily Carr
Emily Carr’s Gravestone in Ross Bay Cemetery, Victoria, BC. Photo via Wikimedia Commons

Reflections on Emily Carr

Carr never married. Perhaps she assumed that if she became a wife then a child would soon follow and that might get in the way of her career. Indeed, this issue is still one for many people today, unsure whether work-family balance is possible.

Carr is well-known for her love of nature, animals and cultures. She bred dogs as an adult and had a range of pets that varied from birds to rats. Likely her pets were her children. She also loved travelling across BC, as was apparent by her paintings of the local area.

Emily Carr is admirable to me personally for several reasons. She grew up in the same city I grew up in and, like me, she left the city for a short time only to return again later. As well, she was a creative spirit from childhood, as was I. Also, I admire her because of the magnificent works she created of her local area on Canada’s west coast. While she had travelled abroad, it was right in her homeland that she took to painting and enjoying the nature around her. In addition, her artwork clearly illustrates her love of nature, culture and freedom.

Artwork by Emily Carr
Emily Carr’s 1913 artwork, Haida Village, Totem Poles at Tannu. Photo via Art Now and Then

As well, when Emily Carr was growing up, women were not taken seriously as being contributors to society in Canadian cities outside of Toronto and Montreal. Carr’s paintings, sketches and books showed that women could make valuable contributions to society. She revealed the beauty of women in addition to the beauty of Canada’s landscapes.

Today, Emily Carr’s legacy lives on. She is often referred to as a Canadian icon and is undoubtedly one of the best-known artists in our country.

In British Columbia, the Emily Carr University of Art and Design offers students opportunities to earn a Bachelor of Design, Fine Arts or Media Arts Degree. Her legacy and artwork are well known not only in Canada but around the world as well.

Is there a female artist who you admire?

©2015 Christy Birmingham

39 COMMENTS

  1. Hi Christy… Miss. Carr’s work is extraordinary indeed and it is a fascinating, in depth piece you have written and I thank you. Her heritage and the time she spent with the West Coast Native people is something I will be doing additional research on. I have always loved the Haida Gwaii works.
    I had the privilege to study water colour under another Canadian Artist, Euphemia McNaught, who was also part of the group of seven. She resided in a place called Beaverlodge in the Peace Country of Northern Alberta. Though the time we spent together was short Euphemia was a lady filled with great wisdom and contributed greatly to the movement of ladies earning their rightful place in the ranks of some of the best artists Canada has to offer. She passed away in 2002 at the age of 100.
    I also had the good fortune of training under Bill Reid, the West Coast woodcarver and artist. Bill was also a very close friend with Miss. Carr, and he often spoke of her accomplishments. Yet another great Canadian artist who passed away in 1998.

    Great article Christy…

    Hugs from Alberta

    • Hi Rolly,
      Wow, I had no idea of your associations with the Group of Seven’s McNaught. Fascinating! Thank you for sharing more about this and for enlightening us about another of the group members. Reid sounds like he shared a lot with you about Emily Carr, which would be great conversation indeed. I appreciate your time taken to comment and share your own experiences as they relate to Carr!

  2. I admire my friend Ayse Juaneda, a Turkish French Artist and Art Teacher who blogs at https://aysejuaneda.wordpress.com/ She’s did 2 watercolor paintings of me in 2013, and then months later in February 2014, when she found out I was depressed, did another to surprise me with, to cheer me up! It’s the one below, based on one of my actual photos.

    In thanks, I wrote the haiku below for her!

    “Thank You Haiku For My Friend Ayşe Juaneda”
    by Ry Hakari

    Nice Ayse is a
    Turkish Delight who paints a
    smile on my sad face!

        • Hasn’t been so far in the sense of creating myself, as I’ve been catching up on comments for hours, and I still have to catch up on reading yesterday’s and today’s blogs, which may have to be my creativity for the day! It’s still creative though, so it’s ok! What is not ok is the smell coming in from the hall outside my apartment door. I think someone spilled split-pea and ham soup. That’s what I’m telling myself the smell is at least!

  3. I wasn’t aware she wrote. A few years (well many) back I saw an exhibit of her totems in Vancouver

    https://www.google.ca/search?q=Emily+Carr+Totem+poles+vancouver+exhibit&espv=2&biw=1280&bih=909&tbm=isch&tbo=u&source=univ&sa=X&ei=U7WqVI7JGoOeyQTt6oGgCw&ved=0CBwQsAQ

    It was there I bought a mug with Emily Carr written across it. Now, the name is almost all fading and it saddens me because it was my favorite mug.

    Very interesting post, Christy.

    • Totems also?… Amazing… This woman was a genius indeed!..
      I much enjoyed the post dear Christy and particularly found touching and worth highlighting the fact that she she created artworks mainly based on the geography and landscapes of of her local area on Canada’s west coast, even when she had travelled abroad and could have found other sources of inspiration.
      Great post… I am glad to learn about Emily Carr!. Hugs and best wishes CB, Aquileana 😀

      • Exactly, Aqui, I was inspired too by her love of her homeland that came shining through in her works. Perhaps just as you look up to Argentine Pope Francis then I would look up to this Canadian artist… Maybe this was a BOOM moment, after all?! Thank you for taking time here and for your beautiful comment, Aqui-pie 🙂

  4. I like Georgia O’ Keeffe and Mary Cassat, among others, probably because it’s what I remember from when I studied. Shortly, I will send you a link of an artist, which incidentally, is also Canadian. I like your featured artist here very much because of the way she handled light and form.

  5. I’ve always been a huge O’Keeffe fan and my trip to Sante Fe and the surrounding areas was glorious because of that reason. I had started to read up on Karr a few years ago when planning a trip to BC, but then had to move far way. Now that I’m back North, I need to put a Canada visit on my list again. Would love to see some of Karr’s work in person.

  6. I admire Maud Lewis. I saw her art when I visited Halifax. It made me smile.

    I read that she spent much of her time alone as a child because she was uncomfortable around other children because she was much smaller than them and was born with hardly no chin.

    Maud’s life as an artist began when her mother started her painting Christmas cards.

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