Our New, Unreliable Winter: Mabel May
Part of the collection of the National Gallery of Canada, Henrietta Mabel May's painting Melting Snow hangs among a cluster of cheerful winter scenes by her contemporaries, including fellow members of Montreal’s famed Beaver Hall Group, A.Y Jackson and Ethel Seath. Amid this pleasing arrangement, May’s work alone, with its mounds of old snow rendered so fluidly the viewer can almost watch their softening edges seep into the surrounding mud, speaks most directly to an increasingly common experience of winter in what were once reliably frigid climes: as a sustained period of freeze, thaw, freeze.
Born in Montreal in 1877, May was in her forties and a celebrated artist by the time she embarked on Melting Snow, likely during a 1924 painting excursion to Quebec’s Baie-Saint-Paul region with Jackson and Randolph Hewton. Her own concerns as she brought the muted yet light-infused scene to life – in contrast to our contemporary anxiety over the changing climate – probably centered on her craft, and the direction she wished to take it. Widely exhibited both during her lifetime and since her death in 1971, Melting Snow is an oft-cited example of May’s gradual adoption of a style associated with the Group of Seven: that is, a lyrical depiction of landscape, with bold, sweeping colours and simplified forms. In May’s hands, however, as noted by art scholar Kathryn Kollar, that style was more refined, less nationalistic, and never overtook her subject.
Once dubbed “the Emily Carr of Montreal,” May’s work consistently had critics and colleagues reaching for adjectives such as “joyous” and “vigorous.” She studied under William Brymner at the Art Association of Montreal; travelled to Paris with fellow artist Emily Coonan; became known for her early industrial and harbour scenes; recorded women’s work on the home front for the Canadian War Memorials Fund in masterworks such as 1919’s Women Making Shells; and was credited for furthering the development of Impressionism in Canada. She was said by one critic to display “an intense feeling for the Canadian scene and an assurance in handling it.”
A founding member of the Beaver Hall Group in 1920, the first collective of professional Canadian artists dominated by women, May maintained lifelong friendships and working relationships with fellow members such as Lilias Torrance Newton, Anne Savage and Sarah Roberston. In 1933, these three, with May, became founding members of the Canadian Group of Painters. Starting in 1938, she spent a decade teaching the popular children’s “Happy Art Class” at the National Gallery of Canada, and lectured there on the value of art education, “for by making pictures, the imagination and power of perception will be developed.”
The Montreal Star once credited May for a quality “that most Canadian painters of her generation neglected”: “a delight in people.” And it is true that, even in the unpeopled landscape of Melting Snow, humanity is felt: in the just-passable road and re-emerging fence tipping over curves and ruts.
The scene embodies the purgatory of early spring. A thin band of bright snow at the base of the hills emanates a stubborn chill, while the sky’s angular cuts of blue promise unpredictable weather. Yet May’s bulky clouds seem to hang in sympathy with the shrinking snow-heaps below. Sun streaks down in warm, generous rays. And subtle pinks and violets – even greens – ever-so-faintly shimmer with a sense of awakening.
We know all too well these mixed messages, these collisions of dark and light, cold and warmth. To gaze upon them rendered in May’s sure hand is a balm.
Works by H. Mabel May are on view in A105, A105a and A108a in the Canadian and Indigenous Galleries at the National Gallery of Canada. 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.