Between the 1920s and early-1940s, most Canadian art buyers knew what they wanted: landscape paintings, especially the rugged, bushwhacking sort associated with the Group of Seven. But Suzanne Duquet, an accomplished painter who began teaching at Montreal’s School of Fine Arts in 1947, preferred to depict people rather than rocky shores and windswept trees. Partly as a result, she has received scant attention. However, a new book argues that her gender was even more of a hindrance than her subject
matter. A rivetting 1945 portrait by Duquet, La femme en mauve (The Woman in Mauve), appears in Maria Tippett’s By a Lady: Celebrating Three Centuries of Art by Canadian Women (Viking, 226 pages, $60).
Last month, Duquet, who is now 75, told Tippett that By a Lady was the first book to feature her work. “She’s such a powerful painter,” Tippett told Maclean’s. Shaking her head at the artist’s long-standing neglect, the author added, “You just want to scream.”
Tippett’s book is, in fact, the first history of Canadian women artists ever published. The author, a native of Victoria, won a Governor General’s Award for her 1979 biography of West Coast painter Emily Carr, one of Canada’s few well-known female artists.
Tippett, who teaches part-time at Cambridge University and has residences in England and British Columbia, said in an interview last week that she began thinking about writing a book on Canadian women artists in the late 1970s. But she says that initially she wondered whether she would be able to unearth enough material. “If you go to the National Gallery in Ottawa, you may see four or five works on display by [Canadian] women,” said Tippett. A Canada Council grant enabled her to spend a year combing the nation’s galleries, museums and archives. In the end, she said, she found far more evidence of significant artistic activity than she could possibly include. “Through three centuries of art-making in Canada,” she writes, “women artists have been ignored, forgotten and marginalized.” Her book, she adds, “seeks to set the record straight.”
The title of Tippett’s book refers to a 19thcentury practice that the author says she finds particularly demeaning. At the time, women’s
submissions to art shows were sometimes identified only as being “By a Lady.” Women’s names, Tippett writes, were evidently thought to be “as irrelevant as their work.”
It is true, she notes, that painting was considered a polite accomplishment for well-to-do women, and that most of the early women artists were dabbling amateurs. But there were fascinating exceptions. Frances Anne Hopkins, for one, travelled the fur-trade routes by canoe with her husband, Edward Martin Hopkins, a Hudson’s Bay Co. official, in the 1860s. She
exhibited her vigorous and detailed oil paintings of backwoods life at the Royal Academy of Art in London.
Tippett found only one painting attributed to Harriet Clench, the daughter of a Cobourg,
Ont., cabinetmaker. A Country Tavern Near Cobourg (1849) predates Clench’s marriage to Paul Kane, the celebrated painter of Indians and northern wilderness landscapes. Clench, Tippett notes, was reputed to have assisted Kane in completing a series of 100 oil paintings, which were produced in a remarkably short time. Although the central figures in her
1849 tavern scene are awkwardly drawn, the painting’s landscape background is deftly handled—and stylistically in keeping with works that would later bear her husband’s signature.
By the late-19th century, Carr and others were travelling to Europe to study, and the artistic gender gap began to close—gradually. Whenever female artists created work that “reflected their own experience,” Tippett observes, “they were considered out of step with, and therefore inferior to, the prominent male artists of the day.” And when women did work within “the dominant male genre,” Tippett contends, they were either ignored or dismissed as producers of second-rate art.
That happened, she argues convincingly, in the late 1950s and 1960s, when various abstract art movements were on the rise. Male Montreal abstractionists, notably Paul-Emile Borduas and Jean-Paul Riopelle, received most of the glory while such gifted female colleagues as Lise Gervais and Marcelle Ferron languished on the sidelines. In the 1970s and 1980s, feminist art attracted considerable attention—but Tippett notes that women artists still receive fewer grants and tend to command lower prices for their work. “In a society that measures artistic success in economic terms,” she writes, “how can women hope to be viewed as anything but second-rate?”
By a Lady sheds richly deserved light on a number of overlooked and extraordinary artists, but the book also has some weaknesses. Some of Canada’s most acclaimed and provocative female artists of recent years, including Jana Sterbak and Renée van Halm, are absent from its pages. And the work of several artists featured in the early chapters is, at best, competent. Tippett does, however, make a case for including such works. “One must consider the circumstances under which a work has been created, and judge it accordingly,” she writes.
Tippett, 47, is currently working on a biography of the British abstract painter Ben Nicholson, who died in 1982. “He was a brilliant artist, and he’s not all that well-known,” said Tippett. She added that he married three times and that all of his wives were artists—the famous British sculptor Barbara Hepworth was number 2. Glowing with enthusiasm for her work in progress, Tippett declared: “One of the points I’m going to make in this book is the extent to which he fed all of these women’s ideas into his own work.” As she points out in By a Lady, it is likely that many similar debts have gone unacknowledged for a long time.
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