Born in Victoria, Emily Carr was one of six children and a rebellious and spirited individual from an early age, much to the distress of her conservative, English-born parents. Victoria in the late 19th century was a small wilderness outpost, but its predominantly English settlers sought to replicate the manners and social structures of their homeland. Thus, Carr’s preference for forests rather than parlors, and for animal companions rather than human ones, proved trying to her conventional family.
Carr decided that she would never marry, aware that the demands of being a wife and mother would limit her development as a professional artist. Carr began her career as an artist by traveling to San Francisco to study at the California School of Design. The traditional academic training she received there gave her a solid foundation in the elements of art. Returning to Canada in 1893, she taught art and began saving money for further study in England, and later France. Just prior to her departure for England in late 1899, she also took the first of many trips to First Nations villages on Vancouver Island and the mainland coast. From an early age, she had felt an affinity with the Indians, whom she recognized as social outsiders like herself. She respected their culture and nature-based spirituality, envied what she saw as their freedom, and found in their art an endless resource for her own creative impulses.
Though Carr’s sketching trips to native villages helped define a primary subject for her art, it was the 1910-1911 trip to France that had the greatest impact on her stylistic development, for she discovered Fauvism as practiced by Henri Matisse and others. As a result, the naturalism and tight detail of her earlier paintings gave way to broader handling of form and an expressive use of bright color. Upon her return to Canada this style of painting proved too radical, limiting Carr’s ability to support herself. She built a small apartment house on the land she had inherited from her parents, planning to paint while supporting herself with income from rented rooms. However, to eke out a living, she also raised sheepdogs, hens, rabbits, and she made and sold hooked rugs and pottery. These efforts left no time for painting. Between 1917 and 1928, she painted little and might never have made a mark on Canadian art had it not been for a request to include her work in the 1927 exhibition, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern
, at the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa.
Carr had been unaware that Canada even had a National Gallery. Nor had she heard of the Group of Seven, Toronto-based artists who shared her fascination with the Canadian landscape and devotion to modernist techniques. The attention she received as a result of the exhibition, combined with the encouragement she received from the Group of Seven, particularly Lawren Harris, renewed her interest in painting. With her energy restored, Carr travelled again to the villages of the Northwest Coast Indians for inspiration.
The 1930s mark the beginning of Carr’s successful writing career. While recuperating from the first of several heart attacks in 1937, she began recording her experiences with the First Nations people of British Columbia. She titled the book Klee Wyck
, which means “Laughing One”—the name given her by one of the tribes she visited. The book won the Governor General’s award in 1941.
Carr’s health deteriorated rapidly during the early 1940s, but she continued to paint, write, and exhibit up until her death in 1945. Comments recorded in her memoirs, letters, and journals make it clear that she recognized both the difficulties and the gifts of her isolated existence. Despite these struggles, Carr developed her own style within the vocabulary of modern art and in doing so created an enduring vision of Canada’s Northwest Coast landscape and aboriginal culture.
Académie Colarossi, Paris, France (1910)
Westminster School of Art, London, United Kingdom-England (1900-1903)
California School of Design, San Francisco, CA, USA (1890-1893)
influenced by and friend of Lawren Harris
student of Amédée Joullin
student of Julius Olsson
student of Algernon Talmage
student of William Phelan Gibb
Honorary Doctorate (posthumous), University of British Columbia, Vancouver, Canada (1945)
Governor General’s Literary Award, Canada Council for the Arts, Ottawa, Canada (1941)