Mary Hiester Reid’s Interiors as Expressions of Self
As we continue to spend more time than usual at home due to the COVID-19 pandemic, we have perhaps become more keenly aware of the ways in which our interior spaces are representative of our individual selves. They contain signifiers of who we are and what we do, usually in the form of collected objects, books, photographs and furniture. In the same way, paintings of domestic interiors by artists can be reflections of their personalities and identities.
In 2015, the exhibition The Artist Herself: Self-Portraits by Historical Canadian Women Artists, organized by Alicia Boutilier and Tobi Bruce at the Agnes Etherington Art Centre and the Art Gallery of Hamilton, explored just such an expanded understanding of self-portraiture in art. By breaking down the concept of the self-portrait into its component parts – status, identity, social and cultural contexts, self-promotion, acknowledgement of worth and autobiography – the genre can extend beyond the pure representation of an artist’s physical likeness. By considering more alternative forms of self-expression, our understanding of the genre can be broadened to include work by historical women and Indigenous artists, whose practices may not fit neatly within traditional art-historical constructs.
Mary Hiester Reid (1854–1921) is one of many Canadian artists whose work has been considered through this lens. Born in Reading, PA, she studied at the Pennsylvania Academy under the American Realist painter Thomas Eakins. During her studies, she met fellow student George A. Reid, whom she married in 1885. Together, the Reids became successful artists: they traveled extensively, taught art in Toronto and near Tannersville, New York, and maintained active home studios throughout their lives.
By 1913, when the National Gallery of Canada's interior scene Morning Sunshine was painted, Hiester Reid was critically acclaimed for her still lifes and was frequently lauded as Canada’s premiere painter of flowers. Her early flower paintings, such as the Gallery’s Chrysanthemums, show her academic training and reveal the meticulous attention to detail and careful rendering typical of the Realist style, reminiscent of scientific botanical drawing. Her style evolved over the years to incorporate elements of Tonalism, as defined by James Abbott McNeill Whistler, and the atmospheric and poetical qualities of Aestheticism. Her awareness of these movements and the manner in which she absorbed them into her personal style demonstrate that she regularly engaged with the contemporary art world.
Morning Sunshine is an important example of a domestic scene that can be interpreted as a self-portrait. It depicts the dining room of the Reids’ home in Toronto’s Wychwood Park. The room was adjacent to Mary’s studio, which she had depicted the previous year in A Fireside (Art Gallery of Ontario). Although the dining room appears undisturbed, the artist’s presence can be felt in the chosen objects that fill the room.
The Chinese lantern hanging from the ceiling alludes to the Reids’ travels and their encounters with Orientalism in Europe, while the windowsills and tabletop lined with cut flowers and plants denote Hiester Reid’s artistic practice. The flowers become a stand-in for the brushes, palettes and canvases that one might find in depictions of an artist’s workspace or in a self-portrait. These items are also notably absent in A Fireside, as Hiester Reid presents herself instead by highlighting printed matter and collected objects that inform this painting.
By Bruce and Boutilier’s definition, Morning Sunshine contains many elements of self-portraiture. It conveys status, it suggests Hiester Reid’s “position within and relationship to social and cultural frameworks,” it is an acknowledgment of worth and it contains autobiographical elements. Importantly, this mode of self-expression allowed Hiester Reid to present herself as a successful professional artist, without appearing to transgress the separate spheres of private (female) and public (male) life that defined the Victorian period.
Hiester Reid was aware of the obstacles faced by women artists as she pursued her career, and gained success despite the confines imposed on her gender. She joined the ranks of professional artists by regularly exhibiting with the Royal Canadian Academy and the Ontario Society of Artists, becoming an OSA Executive Committee member in 1907. She was also on the Executive Committee of the Arts and Crafts Society of Canada, founded in 1903 (later the Canadian Society of Applied Art). At the same time, she conformed to acceptable mores and standards of Victorian women. This may be best expressed in her choice of subjects and her general avoidance of speaking publicly about her art, thereby remaining “modest” and “feminine” in the eyes of her critics. By 1913, however, when she exhibited Morning Sunshine, her reputation as a painter of flowers was unchallenged and had brought her both critical and commercial success. In this context we can better appreciate the potency of the presence of flowers in Morning Sunshine as a signifier of her professional identity as an artist.
By looking beyond the traditional self-portrait and inscribing herself in her paintings in more unconventional ways, Mary Hiester Reid strategically negotiated her femininity and professionalism in a manner that ensured her artistic success. Her work reminds us that the act of self-representation can take on many different forms.
Mary Hiester Reid's Chrysanthemums is on view in Room A106 at the National Gallery of Canada; for information on her works in the collection, see the collection online. 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.