Painter/Writer Emily Carr is a Canadian Icon

Happy Birthday, Emily Carr! Today we’re celebrating this brilliant multi-talented artist. 

Born in 1871, Emily was transgressive both as a woman and an artist. She never married, instead focusing her time on her work. She is known to be one of the first painters to portray Canada in a modernist art style. Now she will always be remembered by this description in The Canadian Encyclopedia: a “Canadian icon.”

Describing Emily’s artwork, FF2 contributor Katherine Factor says:

“Lush, green Pacific Northwest forests are recognizable, but her expressive use of light and brush strokes surprise me with a sensorial experience. Her art is abstracted: unexpected colors, swirls of paint, and vibratory textures that include blurred edges and faint geometries that seem to shift magically in her use of light.”

Emily was deeply inspired by her travels to Indigenous villages; one village, in particular, near Ucluelet – on the west coast of Vancouver – continues to be the home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people.

The subjects of her early paintings were totem poles amidst forests and lakes and the villages of the First Nations people whom she visited. Having been born and raised in British Columbia, there’s no denying that to impose her interpretation of Indigenous culture through her art is problematic. In the early 1900s, however, Emily didn’t view it that way; she thought that portraying these villages and artifacts was a way of helping preserve a culture that she admired as well as honoring the land that she loved. 

Regardless, it was not by capitalizing on Indigenous culture that she found success; the paintings that eventually brought her notoriety were her landscapes. After a trip to Paris in 1910, Emily became influenced by post-impressionism, and by Fauvism (a style known for its bright colors and expressive paint strokes) that had been formed by a group of modernist artists such as Henri Matisse and André Derain in the early 1900s. In fact, Emily is thought to be the first artist to bring Fauvism to Vancouver, portraying Canada’s landscapes in a new and exciting way. Her later work featured lively and colorful hills, forests, and oceans. 

Not only was Emily a talented artist, but she was a wonderful writer as well. She released seven critically acclaimed books over her lifetime – many autobiographical – about her childhood and her journeys to Indigenous villages. The Book of Small, for example, is a book about her childhood in Victoria, which was a very young city at the time that she lived there as a young girl. Her best known work – now recognized as an important piece of Canadian literature – is Klee Wyck (“Laughing One”), about her experiences amongst the First Nations people. In 1941, Klee Wyck won the Governor General’s Award (meaning it was recognized for its distinction by the Governor General of Canada). 

Emily was filled with curiosity and appreciation for both her own country and the world beyond it. She followed her heart, dove headfirst into the things she loved, and will always be remembered in future for her monumental contributions to Canadian art and literature. 

© Julia Lasker (12/12/2022) Special for FF2 Media


Read Katherine Factor’s tribute to Emily Carr here.


Featured photo: “Emily Carr in her studio 1939” by David Abercrombie is licensed under CC BY-SA 2.0.

Middle photo: Formerly in the collection of the Greater Victoria Public Library. Transferred to the Art Gallery of Greater Victoria.

Bottom photo: Emily Carr’s book. Public domain.

Tags: Canadian Artists, Emily Carr, Fauvism, First Nations, Governor General's Award, Klee Wick, Modernism, Post-Impressionism, The Book of Small

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As an associate for FF2 Media, Julia writes reviews and features for films made by women. She is currently a senior at Barnard College studying Psychology. Outside of FF2, her interests include acting, creative writing, thrift shopping, crafting, and making and eating baked goods. Julia has been at FF2 for almost 4 years, and loves the company and its mission dearly.
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