Three Portraits: Stories of Three Women
Portraiture responds to an age-old human impulse to represent oneself and others in a visual way. In the National Gallery of Canada’s Canadian and Indigenous Galleries, the room of 19th- and early 20th-century portraits explores the many ways in which artists represented themselves in self-portraits and studio portraits, as well as how they represented others through portrait commissions, genre scenes and figure studies. The portraits of three women - works by the Canadian artists Florence Carlyle (1864–1923), Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté (1869–1937) and A. Curtis Williamson (1867–1944) – illustrate in three different ways the complex and multi-layered issues of representation that challenge the viewer to look beyond the surface of the painting. They invite us to think about the politics of gender and race that define the sitters and their relationship with the artists. Portraits can reveal as much about the artist as the sitter and, rather than being mere documentary likenesses of a particular person, they can convey important information about the social, economic and cultural context in which they were created.
Portrait and genre painting were often regarded as appropriate subjects for women artists since they could be done inside the home and therefore did not conflict with Victorian social mores of domesticity and femininity. Florence Carlyle’s Grey and Gold, painted around 1910, bears all the hallmarks of a traditional domestic portrait of a woman: the sitter – Miss N. Mabee from Simcoe, Ontario – is shown in profile in an enclosed interior, seemingly unaware that she is being observed. However, through Carlyle’s treatment of light and handling of paint, especially in the gauzy, semi-transparent drapery of the model’s dress, the artist demonstrates her knowledge of modernist styles and techniques and thus aligns herself with the most avant-garde of her male contemporaries.
Carlyle studied for six years in France before establishing a studio in London, Ontario, in 1896. She was elected an Associate member of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1897, and by 1899 had moved her studio to New York City. She travelled widely across Europe and was commissioned by the Canadian War Records program during World War I. She was familiar with Impressionism from her studies abroad, apparent here in the golden light on the model’s head and dress. In contrast to her Impressionist contemporaries, Carlyle maintained a more convincing pictorial space and delineation of the figure. Grey and Gold shows her commitment to painting scenes of contemporary women in the domestic sphere, a theme that she embraced throughout her career. In doing so, the artist succeeded in making women’s experiences visible as she herself stepped outside the traditional woman’s role in her pursuit of professional success as an artist. The National Gallery of Canada’s acquisition of Grey and Gold is a testament to that success – the painting was purchased directly from the Art Association of Montreal’s exhibition in 1910 where the work was likely first exhibited.
While Carlyle’s portrait provides a view of contemporary women’s lives and experiences, Onontaha by Marc-Aurèle de Foy Suzor-Coté is grounded in tradition and rural Québécois experience. Hailing from the Arthabaska region of Quebec, Suzor-Coté is best known as a landscape painter and sculptor of archetypal Canadian figures, although he also created a number of outstanding portraits. Early in his career he travelled widely and, like many of his Canadian contemporaries, studied abroad at the famous art academies in Paris. He would have been trained to draw from a model, a skill that would later serve him well in his portrait painting.
The subject of this painting is Onontaha, a young Haudenosaunee woman from Bécancour, near Quebec City. Formal portraits such as this were often commissioned by the sitter or a family member; in this case, however, it is likely that Onontaha was hired by the artist to model for the work. The painting had been commissioned by Montreal architect J. Omer Marchand to fit a Spanish-renaissance style frame that still accompanies the work, which he had recently purchased. Suzor-Coté was tasked with finding an appropriate subject to match the historical frame. The artist is known to have hired female models from Montreal or Kahnawake for other works in his pursuit to represent the culture and daily life of the Arthabaska region, both past and present. He did so through depictions of archetypal “Canadian” figures such as the “old pioneer” or Maria Chapdelaine, and Onontaha as an Indigenous women would have fit this profile.
The unconventional nature of the commission also reflects on the relationship between the artist and the sitter. Suzor-Coté would have hired Onontaha based primarily on his aesthetic vision of the work for Marchand’s frame. She is seated in profile, her face is however turned towards the viewer, gazing outward. She holds an apple in her hand, a possible reference to Eve and the biblical tale of temptation and seduction. Portrayed against a decorative background that complements the intricate details of the quilt on her lap as well as the ornate frame, she becomes the object of the male artist’s – and male patron’s – gaze. In this context, Onontaha is part of a longstanding art historical tradition where women, and Indigenous women in particular, are portrayed in works of art as passive subjects rather than active agents with individuality and purpose.
Unlike Suzor-Coté, A. Curtis Williamson does not name the sitter of his 1916 portrait of a Black woman, titled simply Negro Girl. Although not well known today, Williamson was a successful portrait painter in Toronto in the early 20th century and enjoyed the support of many well-known patrons of the arts, including the collectors G. Blair Laing and Dr. James MacCallum. The artist studied at the Académie Julian in Paris, was a founding member of the Canadian Arts Club, and was elected to the Royal Canadian Academy in 1908 – all hallmarks of a successful artist of the day.
The identity of Negro Girl is unknown, and it is likely she, too, was a hired model rather than someone whose portrait was commissioned. The omission of her name is also consistent with a wider trend of obscuring the individual identities of persons of colour in representations by white artists. It addition to stripping the model of her identity, the explicit reference to her race further exoticizes and “others” her in relation to the artist, and the viewer by extension. The fact that Williamson signed and dated this work indicates, however, that it was more than a mere figure study and probably intended to be shown at one of the many annual exhibitions to which he submitted work. We know that Williamson created at least two other portraits of Black women, which were exhibited at the 1913 Royal Canadian Academy exhibition. In his review of a 1926 exhibition at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the AGO), critic Hector Charlesworth singled out a similar work stating that “no picture could more effectively illustrate Mr. Williamson’s mastery than the ‘Study in Black’, always the most difficult of color mediums.” This remark suggests that Williamson’s interest in Black women may have been motivated by a desire to show his technical virtuosity as a portraitist. Demonstrating he could handle the more “difficult” darker colours may have been an important element in Williamson’s self-promotion as an artist to ensure a steady flow of commissions, key to his success as a portraitist.
Together these three works exemplify the interesting and often complex relationship between an artist and sitter. Visitors to the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries can discover these and other portraits that prompt us to consider the people behind the artwork, their relationships to one another, and the important social and historical contexts that shaped how each individual was represented.
The portraits are on view in Gallery A104 in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries of the National Gallery of Canada. Share this article and subscribe to our newsletters to stay up-to-date on the latest articles, Gallery exhibitions, events and news, and to learn more about art in Canada.