Laura Muntz: A Woman Artist Navigating the Art Scene at the Turn of the Century
Celebrating International Women’s Day in 2021, we acknowledge the contributions of women to all aspects of life, as professionals, with many fighting a global pandemic on the frontlines, and as caretakers and providers on the home front, contributing to the welfare of their families. Within this context, the celebrated Canadian Impressionist Laura Muntz (Lyall) serves as a defiant example of achievement in a male-dominated field and as a champion of womanhood within the confines of an era.
One of the most accomplished painters of her time, Muntz (1860–1930) had a successful artistic career in Europe, choosing to study in England, and then France. Living in Paris as a single woman during the 1890s, Muntz supported herself through teaching and administrative work at school – she was elevated to massiere (Studio head) at the Académie Colarossi – and through sales of her art. She was the first Canadian to receive the distinguished “Honourable Mention” at the Paris Salon exhibition in 1895.
Upon her return to North America in 1898, she established a studio in Toronto and began teaching, as well as exhibiting widely. She quickly gained critical acclaim at home and in the United States, winning medals at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo in 1901 and at the Louisiana Purchase Exposition in 1904. A member of the Ontario Society of Artists from 1891 onwards, she became the first woman to serve on its Executive Council. She continued to be successful in Europe, where her paintings were featured in the prestigious French newspaper L’Illustration and the international Studio magazine, published in England.
During Muntz’s artistic career, from the late Victorian period and into the early 20th century, both the changing role of women in society as well as the intimate bond between a mother and child became themes that were universally celebrated in art. Seeking to portray a timeless subject, a number of internationally acclaimed women artists, including Berthe Morisot and Mary Cassatt, had made the motif of womanhood their primary theme during the 19th century. Depictions of women at work or in their domestic world celebrated women’s strength and maturity. Notwithstanding the confines of the period and concentrating on moments in time, Muntz sought to create a psychological study of a personality and convey the inner emotional life of her models in works such as A Daffodil, acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1910. Muntz avoided sentimentality and, in her compositions of mother and child, she strived for the expression of love through restrained tenderness, which she saw as an expression of moral strength.
The exploration of new themes, such as women at leisure, enabled her to project her own conviction as a professional artist and a feminist. With sensitive subtlety, she signalled in these works the newborn freedoms resulting from changes to women’s roles in society and from the advancements of an industrialized age. While the right to want and deserve equality and recognition may appear natural today, for women of Muntz’s era even the simplest need for personal growth or for restorative leisure and repose was subject to social mores and, frequently, the approval of a male authority figure. In her portraits of women at leisure, Muntz consciously implied the entitlement of her female sitters to recreational and personal time.
A major source of inspiration, children were a favoured and frequent subject of the artist throughout her career. The purity and innocence of her portraits of children have no parallel in Canadian art. In 1915, at the age of 55, she married her brother-in- law, Charles Lyall, following the sudden death of her younger sister. Adapting to her role of stepmother to eleven children (only a few still remaining at home), she installed her studio at home and continued to paint until her death fifteen years later.
Despite still being governed by the strict gender rules of Victorian middle-class society and ahead of the shift to greater emancipation in the 20th century, Laura Muntz succeeded in pursuing her artistic aspirations and achieving recognition as a leading artist. She developed her own individual interpretation of the Impressionist style and, through her use of rich colour and subdued light, adopted a popular genre to communicate her sense of modernism and inspire the next generation of women artists, who would build on the innovative advances made by women artists like Muntz.
Laura Muntz's painting A Daffodil is on view in A104 at the National Gallery of Canada. Her work is also featured in the Gallery’s exhibition Canada and Impressionism: New Horizons, which will be presented from January to June 2022. 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.