Trailblazing: Six Women Artists from 1900–1950

The collection of the National Gallery of Canada Library and Archives comprises a significant group of photographs of Canadian painters, sculptors and photographers of the 19th and 20th centuries. These images depict some of the country's most gifted artists in their daily lives or at work in their studios, revealing intriguing aspects of their personalities and their deep commitment to art. Included in the collection are photographs of the six women artists presented here, each of whom developed a unique artistic vision and left a lasting impression on Canadian art.


Emily Carr in her studio in front of Sunshine and Tumult, c. 1939. Photograph

Harold Mortimer-Lamb, Emily Carr in her studio, in front of "Sunshine and Tumult", c. 1939. Visual Resources Collection, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

A leading figure in the development of modern art in Canada, Emily Carr trained as an artist at the California School of Design in San Francisco, the Westminster School of Art in London, and at the Académie Colarossi in Paris. In 1912, she returned to British Columbia, living and working as an artist in Victoria. Her iconic paintings of forest interiors and monumental Indigenous totems became particularly well known to the Canadian public in the late 1920s, when her work was presented in the exhibition Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, shown at the Art Gallery of Ontario (formerly Art Gallery of Toronto) and the National Gallery of Canada. The photograph reproduced here was taken late in Carr’s career by the well-known journalist and photographer Harold Mortimer-Lamb and captures the artist in her studio in front of her painting Sunshine and Tumult. It was taken a few months after her participation in an exhibition that had brought international acclaim – A Century of Canadian Art at the Tate Gallery in London in 1938. Carr died in Victoria in 1945, having established a reputation as one of Canada’s foremost artists.



Photograph of Florence Wyle as a young sculptor in Chicago by unknown Photographer

Florence Wyle as a young sculptor in Chicago (Photographer unknown). Frances Gage fonds, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

Florence Wyle, the daughter of Solomon Benjamin Wyle and Libbie A. Sandford, was born in Trenton, Illinois, in 1881. At the age of nineteen, Wyle enrolled in a pre-med program at the University of Illinois. After studying anatomy, she switched to sculpture at the Art Institute of Chicago, where her instructors included the prominent American sculptor Lorado Taft (1860–1936), and where she met her lifelong partner Frances Loring. Wyle and Loring moved from New York to Canada in 1913 and shared a studio in a former church in Toronto, producing works that placed them in the forefront of sculpture in Canada. Wyle was a co-founder of the Sculptors' Society of Canada in 1928 and the first woman sculptor to become a full member of the Royal Canadian Academy of Art in 1938. She died in Newmarket, Ontario, on 14 January 1968, three weeks before the death of her companion, Frances Loring.



Frances Loring working on a portrait bust in her studio, Photographer unknown

Frances Loring working on a portrait bust in her studio (Photographer unknown). Visual Resources Collection, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

Frances Loring was born in Wardner, Idaho, in 1887, the daughter of Frank Curtis Loring, a mining engineer, and Mary Charlotte Moore. Benefitting from her family’s financial resources, she studied art at the École des Beaux-Arts in Geneva, the Académie Colarossi in Paris, the School of the Museum of Fine Arts Boston and, finally, at the Art Institute of Chicago, where she met Florence Wyle. After moving to Canada with Wyle in 1913, Loring was commissioned by the Canadian War Memorials Fund to produce sculptures of workers on the home front and later went on to design several war memorials, including the Galt Cenotaph in Cambridge, Ontario (1930). Other notable works by the artist include the Lion sculpture that is part of the Queen Elizabeth Way Monument (1939) in Toronto, as well as the Sir Robert Borden Monument (1957) in Ottawa. Loring was a member of the Sculptors Society of Canada and the Royal Canadian Academy of Art. She also promoted sculpture through numerous lectures in cities across Canada.



Prudence Heward, photographed by M.O. Hammond, 1931

M.O. Hammond, Prudence Heward, 1931. Visual Resources Collection, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 


Efa Prudence Heward, an artist acclaimed for her portraits and figure studies of women and children, was born into a wealthy Montreal family in 1896. Artistically talented as a child, she took her first drawing lessons in 1908 at the age of twelve. In 1918, after spending two years working for the Red Cross in London during the First World War, Heward received formal art training under William Brymner (1855–1925) at the Art Association of Montreal. Two years later she joined the Beaver Hall Group, which had been inaugurated in 1920 through the efforts of artists Randolph Hewton (1888–1960), Edwin Holgate (1892–1977), Mabel May (1877–1971) and Lilias Torrance Newton (1896–1980). The Beaver Hall Group was relatively short-lived as an official entity, but continued to thrive informally throughout the 1920s and beyond through friendships between Heward and several other women artists in Montreal, including Nora Collyer (1898–1979), Sarah Robertson (1891–1948) and Anne Savage (1896–1971). Heward died while in Los Angeles, California, in 1947. A memorial exhibition of her work was held at the National Gallery of Canada the following year.



Charles Comfort, Paraskeva Clark, October 1938.

Charles Comfort, Paraskeva Clark, October 1938. Visual Resources Collection, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. ©  Estate of Charles Comfort 

Born in 1898 in Saint Petersburg, Russia, Paraskeva Clark, née Plistik, had already established herself as a painter – first in Russia, and then in Paris – before immigrating to Toronto with her second husband, Philip Clark, in 1931. She continued to develop as an artist, becoming one the first painters in Canada to reject the nationalism of the Group of Seven. Clark had absorbed numerous artistic styles early on in her career, including Post-Impressionism and Cubism, but ultimately developed a distinctive modern style of her own that reflected her interest in political and social issues. Clark was a member of numerous art societies in Canada, including the Canadian Group of Painters, the Canadian Society of Painters in Watercolour and the Ontario Society of Artists. Her contribution to Canadian art was acknowledged in the important National Gallery of Canada exhibition Canadian Paintings in the Thirties, presented in 1975.



Madge Smith, Photograph of Pegi Nicol MacLeod at the Observatory Art Centre, University of New Brunswick, 1945.

Madge Smith, Pegi Nicol MacLeod at the Observatory Art Centre, University of New Brunswick, 1945. Madge Smith fonds, Library and Archives, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa. 

Born in 1904 in Listowel, Ontario, Pegi Nicol MacLeod moved with her family at the age of four to Ottawa. In 1921 she studied painting under Franklin Brownell at the newly established Art Association of Ottawa, followed by studies at the École des beaux-arts de Montréal. Encouraged by the ethnographer and folklorist Marius Barbeau, Nicol MacLeod travelled to paint the scenery and Indigenous peoples of Western Canada. Drawn to portraiture and landscape painting, MacLeod’s early work reflects the influence of the Group of Seven. As her career progressed, however, she developed a vibrant expressionistic style that is very much her own. Along with her painting career, Nicol MacLeod worked for a short period as editor of The Canadian Forum and, during the Second World War, was employed as an official war artist, depicting the Women’s Division of the Armed Forces. From the 1940s on, she taught annually alongside Lucy Jarvis at the Observatory Art Centre at the University of New Brunswick, Fredericton. Her last major project, known as the Manhattan Cycle, depicted scenes around her apartment on East 88th Street in New York City, where she had resided with her husband Norman MacLeod off and on since the early 1940s. Nicol MacLeod died of cancer at the age of 45, her remarkable talent extinguished before its vast potential could be fully realized.

Every reasonable effort has been made to identify and contact copyright holders to obtain permission to reproduce these images. We apologize for any inadvertent omissions.  If you have any queries please contact: [email protected]


Works by Emily Carr, Frances Loring, Prudence Heward and Paraskeva Clark are currently on view in the Indigenous and Canadian Galleries (Rooms A105–A109) of the National Gallery of Canada, for information on works by Florence Wyle and Pegi Nicol MacLeod, see the Gallery’s online collection. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, news and events, and to learn more about art in Canada.​

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