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Emily Carr in her studio, with 'Sunshine and Tumult'

Emily Carr in her studio, with 'Sunshine and Tumult', c.1939
Photograph by Harold Mortimer-Lamb
Vancouver Art Gallery Archives

The Challenges of Being a Woman Artist

Objective:

Students examine the role of women artists in history, using Emily Carr as an example.

Description of Activity:

Students research the challenges that faced Emily Carr as a woman artist working in Canada at the turn of the century.

Duration:

3 sessions, 60 minutes each
Independent research time

Background Information for Teachers:

While there have always been women artists, not all of them have had the same opportunities to develop their skills or to showcase their work that men have had. In Canada, Emily Carr was part of the first generation of women to attend official art academies. She began her studies in San Francisco and went on to study art in England and Paris. As a student she encountered a number of obstacles to embarking on a career as a professional artist, not the least of which was her discomfort with drawing the nude body from life.

Nevertheless, Carr persisted in her ambitions, choosing the life of an artist over that of a wife and mother, the usual roles of women in her day. She was resolute in her decision, but her writing sometimes reveals a sense of loneliness and frustration at society's expectations. She also alludes to the dominance of male artists, especially the members of the Group of Seven. Some authors argue that Carr looked to male authority figures for approval of her own work. Whether or not this was the case, Carr's life and her career point out the divide that existed between men and women in her day and the implications that this had for her work as an artist.

Preparation for Teachers:

  • Examine Emily Carr in her Studio, a photograph of Carr taken by Harold Mortimer-Lamb, an avid supporter of the Group of Seven.
  • Read the excerpt from Carr's autobiography Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr (see Appendix that follows this activity), describing the artist's experience studying in France.
  • Read the excerpt from Linda Nochlin's article "Why Have There Been No Great Women Artists?" (see Appendix), which follows this activity.
  • Screen the video The Other Side of the Picture, 1999, where available.

Materials for Students:

  • Reproduction of Mortimer-Lamb photograph of Carr (c.1939)
  • Video The Other Side of the Picture, where available
  • Flip chart
  • Markers
  • Library resources

Process:

Part I

  • Show students Harold Mortimer-Lamb's photograph of Carr (c.1939). Discuss the way Carr is presented to the viewer. How is she posed? How is she dressed? How old does she appear to be? What is the setting? What else is in the room with her? What is on the table in front of her?
  • Expand the discussion to consider Carr's observations about studying at the Académie Colarossi and work through Linda Nochlin's text with students.
  • Screen the video The Other Side of the Picture where available.
  • As a group, make a list of some of the obstacles that may have dissuaded women from becoming artists: pressure from society and family, desire to raise a family (the two not being compatible in this period), difficulty in finding work, etc.

Part II

  • Have students research the lives of Canadian women in the late nineteenth and early twentieth centuries. Invite them to read Carr's writing with her role as a woman artist and their chosen painting in mind. Books by Emily Carr include Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of An Artist; Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr; and Opposite Contraries: The Unknown Journals of Emily Carr and Other Writings, edited by Susan Crean.
  • Students should consider the following questions as they work: What kinds of subjects did other artists (men and women) paint at the time? How did Emily Carr paint (i.e. indoors, outdoors)? Where did she exhibit her work? What was the public's response to her work?
  • Have students write a summary of their research.

Discussion:

  • Invite students to present their findings to the class, allowing time for discussion after each presentation.

Further Engagement:

  • Have students research a contemporary female artist.

Appendix: Quotes about women artists