Emily Carr was a Canadian artist and writer inspired by the Indigenous peoples of the Pacific Northwest Coast. As one of the first painters in Canada to adopt a Modernist and Post-Impressionist painting style, Carr did not receive widespread recognition for her work until late in her life. As she matured, the subject matter of her painting shifted from aboriginal themes to landscapes—forest scenes in particular.
Emily Carr was born in Victoria, British Columbia, on December 13, 1871, the year British Columbia joined Canada. Emily Carr was the second-youngest of nine children born to English parents Richard and Emily (Saunders) Carr. The Carr home was on Birdcage Walk (now Government Street), in the James Bay district of Victoria, a short distance from the legislative buildings (nicknamed the “lsquo;Birdcages’) and the town itself.
The Carr children were raised on English tradition. Richard Carr, born in England, believed it was sensible to live on Vancouver Island, a colony of Great Britain, where he could practice English customs and continue his British citizenship. The family home was made up in lavish English fashion, with high ceilings, ornate mouldings, and a parlour. Carr was taught in the Presbyterian tradition, with Sunday morning prayers and evening Bible readings. Richard Carr called on one child per week to recite the sermon, and Emily consistently had trouble reciting it.
Carr’s mother died in 1886, and her father died in 1888.
Carr’s father encouraged her artistic inclinations, but it was only in 1890, after her parents’ deaths, that Carr pursued her art seriously. She studied at the San Francisco Art Institute for two years (1890–1892) before returning to Victoria. In 1899 Carr traveled to London, where she studied at the Westminster School of Art. Carr also visited the Nootka Indian mission at Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island in 1899. She traveled also to a rural art colony in St Ives, Cornwall, returning to British Columbia in 1905. Carr took a teaching position in Vancouver at the ‘Ladies Art Club’ that she held for no longer than a month – she was unpopular amongst her students due to her rude behaviour of smoking and cursing at them in class, and the students began to boycott her courses.
In 1898, at age 27, Carr made the first of several sketching and painting trips to aboriginal villages. She stayed in a village near Ucluelet on the west coast of Vancouver Island, home to the Nuu-chah-nulth people, then commonly known to English-speaking people as ‘Nootka’. Carr recalled that her time in Ucluelet made “a lasting impression on me”. Her interest in indigenous life was reinforced by a trip to Alaska nine years later with her sister Alice. In 1912, Carr took a sketching trip to Indian villages in Haida Gwaii, the Upper Skeena River, and Alert Bay.
In search of a bigger vision of art, she went to France in 1910, where she was introduced to the work of the Fauves, French artists who were dubbed the “wild beasts” for their daring use of bright colours. In 1912 Carr made a six-week painting trip to fifteen First Nations villages along the British Columbia coast. After exhibiting the results in Vancouver, Carr settled in Victoria, where she lived by renting out rooms, growing fruit, breeding dogs, and, later, making pottery and rugs decorated with Native designs to sell to tourists.
In March 1912 Carr opened a studio at 1465 West Broadway in Vancouver. When locals failed to support her radical new style, bold colour palette and lack of detail, she closed the studio and returned to Victoria. In the summer of 1912, Carr again traveled north, to Haida Gwaii and the Skeena River, where she documented the art of the Haida, Gitxsan and Tsimshian.
Over time Carr’s work came to the attention of several influential and supportive people, including Marius Barbeau, a prominent ethnologist at the National Museum in Ottawa. Barbeau in turn persuaded Eric Brown, Director of Canada’s National Gallery, to visit Carr in 1927. Brown invited Carr to exhibit her work at the National Gallery as part of an exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art. Carr sent 26 oil paintings east, along with samples of her pottery and rugs with indigenous designs. The exhibit, which also included works by Edwin Holgate and A.Y. Jackson, traveled to Toronto and Montreal.
Association with the Group of Seven
It was at the exhibition on West Coast aboriginal art at the National Gallery in 1927 that Carr first met members of the Group of Seven, at that time Canada’s most recognized modern painters. Lawren Harris of the Group became a particularly important support: “You are one of us,” he told Carr, welcoming her into the ranks of Canada’s leading modernists. The encounter ended the artistic isolation of Carr’s previous 15 years, leading to one of her most prolific periods, and the creation of many of her most notable works. Through her extensive correspondence with Harris, Carr also became aware of and studied Northern European symbolism.
Carr’s artistic direction was influenced by the Group, and by Lawren Harris in particular, not only by his work, but also by his belief in Theosophy. Carr struggled to reconcile this with her own conception of God. Carr’s “distrust for institutional religion” pervades much of her art. She became influenced by Theosophic thought, like many artists of the time, and began to form a new vision of God as nature. She led a spiritual way of life, rejecting the Church and the religious institution. She painted raw landscapes found in the Canadian wilderness, mystically animated by a greater spirit.
Emily Carr suffered her forth (and last) heart attack and died on March 2, 1945, at the James Bay Inn in her hometown of Victoria, British Columbia. This happened shortly before she was to have been awarded an honorary doctorate by the University of British Columbia. Carr is buried at Ross Bay Cemetery.