Women Who Look Out from the Canvas: The Paintings of Prudence Heward
Prudence Heward was an artist of many contradictions. Art historian Christine Boyanoski, in her 1989 book on art in Canada between the wars, calls Heward a conservative painter “unreceptive to the most progressive art of the day,” yet her nudes caused significant controversy when they were exhibited in the 1930s. In an epoch when Canadian women’s roles in public life and the professions were limited, Heward was well educated and nationally successful. Even more radical than her status as a professional painter, however, was how she represented women in her art. Her paintings most often depicted women, whom she portrayed as self-contained, even defiant, and whose gazes often directly met that of the viewer.
In Girl on a Hill (1928), the seated woman is monumental – heroic in scale – within the confines of the canvas. Modelled on Louise McLea, a well-known Montreal modern dancer, the figure's short hair and athletic body, as well as her loose dress and bare limbs, convey a new ideal of freedom for women of the 1920s era. The profession of dancer is a modern and urban one, while the landscape is countryside. The painting presents the friction between a traditional, rural space and the independent, progressive woman who fills it. Girl on a Hill won first prize at the 1929 Governor General Willingdon Arts Competition, organized by the National Gallery of Canada, and the painting marked Heward’s entrée into Canadian art.
Heward painted during the interwar years when Canadian artists, especially the Group of Seven, were formulating a national canon. She exhibited with the Group of Seven, but her work stood in contrast to their paintings of the pristine northern landscape. Her paintings argued for the necessity of the figure. Her vision of Canada was comprised of Canadian women and landscape served as a backdrop.
Although some critics pointed to the European manner of Heward’s painting, including fellow painter John Lyman who called her 1931 Girl under a Tree (Art Gallery of Hamilton) a “Bouguereau nude against [a] Cezanne background," others heralded her work as essentially Canadian. “If one tried to reach a Canadian formula of painting, no work would present better elements to help us formulate it than this ‘Rollande,’” wrote art critic Jehanne Bietry Salinger in The Canadian Forum in 1930. Rollande depicts a Quebecois farm girl with her hands on her hips, dressed in an acid-pink pinafore, her expression one of impassive strength. The painting’s lines are bold and structural, the colours brilliant, even luminous, and Salinger remarks on the virility of the brushwork.
Born to a wealthy Montreal family in 1896, Heward’s art education began at the early age of 12 at the Art Association of Montreal. Having spent the First World War volunteering for the Red Cross in England, she returned to Europe in 1925-26 to study with Charles Guérin and Bernard Naudin at the Académie Colarossi in Paris and, in 1929, to take classes at the Scandinavian Academy in the former studio of painter Jean-Antoine Watteau. During her time in the French capital, she stayed at a hotel on the more affluent Right Bank instead of the bohemian Left Bank, although she was rumoured to frequent Le Dome Café in Montparnasse, where Ernest Hemingway and F. Scott Fitzgerald drank.
Heward lived within constraints common to women born in the Victorian era, but her artistic career sometimes transgressed them. Her studio was on the top floor of the house she shared with her mother on Peel Street. In the summer, she and her family spent time at Fernback, the family’s summerhouse outside Brockville, Ontario. Yet, in a more bohemian style, she and her artist friends would go on “sketching picnics” along the St. Lawrence River.
Although Heward was not an official member of Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group, a group of women painters who exhibited together and shared a studio space at Beaver Hall Square in the early 1920s, she was friends with many of the members and exhibited with them. Barbara Meadowcroft, in her 1999 book about the Beaver Hall women painters, suggests that Heward benefitted from her wealthy family, but not without personal cost. “She had a car, a studio, and no domestic responsibilities,” writes Meadowcroft, but Heward suffered from the stress of a large, judgmental family that held significant authority over her social life.
The artist often painted people she knew well, especially her family and friends, and places that were familiar to her. She told fairy tales to help her nieces stay still while they posed for her. She did travel, however, staying for example in 1936 with her friend and fellow painter Isabel McLaughlin in Bermuda, where she painted tropical landscapes and local Black women who modelled for her.
Feminist scholar Natalie Luckyj writes that Heward was “a shy and retiring person in public,” yet her paintings, especially from the 1940s, have been described as psychological self-portraits; her subjects express pain and loss suffered with stoicism. The artist was severely asthmatic, and, after a car accident in 1939 in which she injured her painting arm and her nose, her health declined. Painting canvases became, at times, too physically demanding. In a letter dated 1944, she wrote, “I often wonder how much longer I can go on, as it is a night & day affair & I am completely worn out … I miss my painting terribly but most of the time I just long for rest & to be able to breathe properly.” In 1946, with her mother and one of her sisters, Heward travelled to try a new treatment at the Hospital of the Good Samaritan in Los Angeles, where she died on 19 March, aged 50.
Two years later, the National Gallery of Canada organized a memorial exhibition of her work that toured to nine Canadian cities over 16 months. In the opening remarks for the exhibition, painter Anne Savage said, “Not since the days of J.W. Morrice has any native Montrealer brought such distinction to her native city, and never before has such a contribution been made by a woman."
Heward's paintings of women were criticized as lacking in beauty. Art writer James D. Campbell claims that Heward “portrayed womanhood in a gritty, unusually truthful and captivating way, and often with no cosmetic allure at all. Her women … negotiated the difficult waters of her time. They are real women.” Heward’s women are not decorative, but this is a conceptual strength that has made her work relevant to art critics in late 20th century, who rediscovered her work. Her 1927 painting Anna shows a rural woman in winter clothes regarding the viewer with a flat, uncompromising expression. Painted nearly ten years later, the subject of her work Girl with a Yellow Sweater (1936) also has a serious expression that is suggestive of an unknowable inner life.
The emotional power of Heward’s paintings lies in the fact that they oblige the viewer to think about the reality of her subjects, these “real women.” Painting women as real, un-idealized people with their own subjectivity asks the viewer to consider their personhood. These women aren’t objects for our gaze; instead, they look at us. “Her key works,” writes Luckyj, “for full effect, require that the viewer be willing to acknowledge in themselves the vulnerability of the human condition.”
Works by Prudence Heward are on view in A109 at the National Gallery of Canada. For other works by the artist, consult 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.