Emily Carr Paintings Celebrate the Beauty of the Pacific Northwest
If you’ve ever been to British Columbia, you know how spectacular it is with its mountains, forests, and Pacific Ocean views. It is also historically interesting, with a long record of rich Indigenous cultures. Canadian painter and author Emily Carr celebrated the natural and cultural significance of her beloved homeland, spending most of her life in Victoria and Vancouver, with a few trips to Europe and San Francisco to study art.
1000Museums and Emily Carr share a lot in common! We both love the Pacific Northwest (and art, of course). 1000Museums is in Ashland, Oregon, a town nestled in the foothills of the Siskiyou and Cascade mountain ranges, bordered by forests of conifer trees. Emily Carr was from British Columbia in Canada, an area that is also famous for trees and mountains.
Carr painted numerous watercolor and oil paintings, using loose and expressive brush strokes. She introduced the conservative Vancouver art scene to Post-Impressionism and Fauvism. She was also a popular author who wrote seven critically-acclaimed books about her childhood, her trips to remote First Nations communities, and her life as an artist. Her 1929 Indian Church painting shows her interest in Fauvism, which she studied during a trip to Paris in 1910.
Fauvism is a style of painting that features vivid colors and non-realistic representations of figures and landscapes. The style flourished in Paris from 1905-1908. Although it had a short lifespan, it had an important influence on subsequent artists, especially the German expressionists. The most famous artists who painted in the Fauvism style were Henri Matisse, André Derain, and Henri Rousseau.
The artists were called “les Fauves,” which is French for “wild beasts.” The Fauves used wild brush strokes, vivid colors, and a high degree of abstraction. In Carr’s Western Forest we can see that trees are represented, but we also get a feeling of dream-like wildness, which is entirely appropriate for a Western forest. If you’ve ever walked in the coastal redwoods or evergreen woodlands of the Pacific Northwest, you will relate to Carr’s wild representation of a Western forest.
Emily Carr Biography
Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia in 1871, the year British Columbia joined Canada. Her parents, Richard and Emily (Saunders) Carr, were English. Her father encouraged her art, but he was also strict in his parenting style, bringing up his many daughters in a traditional English style. The family home was decorated in English fashion, with high ceilings, ornate moldings, and a parlor. Visitors today can tour the Carr House which is a National Historic Site of Canada.
After Carr’s mother died in 1886 and her father died in 1888, Carr pursued her art. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute for two years between 1890 and 1892 before returning to Victoria. In 1899 she traveled to London, where she studied at the Westminster School of Art.
Upon returning to Canada, Carr took a teaching position in Vancouver at the Ladies Art Club. She left within a month, though. She was known to smoke in class and curse at her students, who began to boycott her courses.
In 1910, Carr moved to France to study at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. She was greatly influenced by the Post-Impressionists and the Fauvists she met there and adopted a vibrant color palette in her own work. After returning home in 1912, she organized an exhibition in her studio of seventy watercolors and oils representative of her time in Paris.
Emily Carr and Indigenous People
Emily Carr made many trips to sketch and paint Indigenous villages in British Columbia. She wished to share the art and culture of the marginalized people whom she met with a broader audience. In 1898 she stayed in a village near Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people. Carr recalled that her time in Ucluelet made a lasting impression on her. Nine years later she travelled North along the West Coast to Alaska with her sister Alice, visiting and sketching Indigenous communities.
In the summer of 1912, Carr again traveled north, to Haida Gwaii and the Skeena River, where she documented the art of the Haida, Gitxsan, and Tsimshian people. On her return to the south, Carr organized an exhibit of some of this work and gave a detailed lecture about the Native villages that she had visited.
One of Carr’s most significant pieces is from the 1930s but harkens back to her early trips to visit Indigenous villages. Her Blunden Harbour Totem piece, which now resides in the National Gallery of Canada, has taken on a sort of documentary importance. In 1964, the Native ‘Nak’waxda’xw people were forcibly relocated from the harbor by the Canadian Department of Indian and Northern Affairs and their village was burned to the ground in order to preclude the community from returning. Today, Carr’s painting serves as a sobering reminder of the land and its people.
Struggling Woman Artist
Like so many women artists, Carr struggled to get support for her work as an artist. Particularly after she returned from France and introduced the new art forms she had learned in Paris, her work was not well-received. She opened a studio in Vancouver in 1912 but closed it just a year later when it was not successful. She moved back to Victoria where she had been born and where several of her sisters still lived.
During the next 15 years, Carr ran a boarding house known as the “House of All Sorts,” which she wrote about in her 1944 book by the same name. It was hard work, but gave her a lot of material for the book, which is a collection of 41 stories about her days running a home for characters of all sorts, including quite a few rent evaders.
During these years, Carr struggled financially but survived by running the boarding house, growing fruit, breeding dogs, and, later, making pottery and rugs decorated with Native designs to sell to tourists. She still worked on her painting, but minimally, as the backbreaking work of running the boarding house took up a lot of her time.
Despite financial and artistic challenges, Emily Carr was no “shrinking violet.” She was a strong, independent woman who enjoyed life on her own terms. She never married and travelled to remote parts of British Columbia alone or with just a few friends or sisters. She kept numerous pets, including dogs, cats, rats, chipmunks, monkeys, and parrots. She was an eccentric, who was rude to people she didn’t like. She was happiest when alone in a forest or visiting Indigenous people, who called her Klee Wyck (“Laughing One”). The phrase, Klee Wyck, became the title of her first memoir.
The Group of Seven
In 1927 Carr’s difficult life changed for the better when she was invited to participate in the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art. The exhibition included thirty-one of her paintings, as well as her pottery and rugs. The exhibition traveled to Toronto and Montreal. Carr attended the opening in Toronto where she met members of the Group of Seven, beginning a lifelong correspondence with painter Lawren Harris, who became one of her biggest supporters.
The Group of Seven, also sometimes known as the Algonquin School, were Canadian landscape painters who worked from the years 1920 to 1933. Lawren Harris became a particularly important ally for Carr, welcoming her into the ranks of Canada’s leading Modernists. The recognition by this group of artists marks the end of Carr’s artistic isolation and led to one of her most prolific periods.
Throughout the 1930s Carr specialized in scenes from the lives and rituals of Native Americans. She also showed her awareness of Canadian Native culture through a number of works representing the British Columbian rainforest. Her Metchosin painting depicts the peaks and forests of Metchosin, a small municipality on the southern tip of Vancouver Island in British Columbia. The dynamic colors and startling composition in the painting show the influence that Fauvism had on her work.
Last Years and Legacy
Carr suffered a heart attack in 1937, and another in 1939, forcing her to move in with her sister Alice to recover. In 1940 Carr suffered a serious stroke, and in 1942 she had another heart attack. With her ability to travel curtailed, Carr’s focus shifted from her painting to her writing. She published her first book, Klee Wyck, in 1941, which received the Governor-General’s Award for non-fiction.
Emily Carr suffered her last heart attack and died on March 2, 1945, at the James Bay Inn in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia, shortly before she was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia. She is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery in Victoria.
Although Carr’s books were popular when she wrote them and are still in print, she is primarily remembered for her painting. Her art captures the beauty and culture of Canada, using a modern style that was not well known in Canada before her innovative work. Carr merged her interest in French art styles, including Fauvism and Post-Impressionism, with her interest in Native cultures and her love for the natural beauty of British Columbia.
Having to work for a living as a landlady, in a society that didn’t understand her art, Carr succeeded against all odds. Like other women artists who were far from major art centers, including Georgia O’Keeffe and Hilma af Klint, Carr persisted in her love of art, both European and Indigenous art, and left the world a more beautiful and informed place.
1000Museums feels a connection to this artist who loved the Pacific Northwest as much as we do, and invites you to join us in celebrating her work by visiting the 1000Museums collection of her art.