Emily Carr: Who Is She?

Haida Totems, Cha-atl, Queen Charlotte Island by Emily Carr, 1912

Emily Carr: A Compelling Story

I started this post intending only to feature one interesting and beautiful totem watercolor, but then I discovered the compelling story of the artist herself. As stated in summary by the Vancouver Art Gallery,

“Her independence as a woman when domesticity was expected, her resolve to travel frequently and unaccompanied to isolated First Nations villages, and her devotion to art despite the obstacles, distractions and criticism, remain inspirational.” Quoted from Vancouver Art Gallery

Emily Carr at age 21, 1893 British Columbia Archives

Her Education

Perhaps most surprising to me was her extensive education in art. After the death of both parents while she was still in her teens, she spent three years as a very young woman in California School of Design in San Francisco (1889-95) where she learned about traditional still life and landscapes..

She continued studying in England (1899) at the Westminster School of Art. She also spent time in the private studio schools in Cornwall, Bushey, Hertfordshire, and elsewhere where her instruction continued in the nineteenth-century British watercolour tradition.

In 1910 she spent a year in France, studying at Académie Colarossi in Paris (and elsewhere in France) which introduced her to a “Post-Impressionist style with a Fauvist palette.” (see Vancouver Art Gallery)

Her lifelong dedication to art exploring British Colombian native cultures – even living among them for her research – is astonishing considering the prevailing cultural attitudes of her time.

Video 1

Ok, so the narrator is a wee bit ostentatious and the music is annoying…..however, in this video produced in 1946 (one year after Emily Carr’s death), there are some interesting local scenes and gorgeous views of her artworks I have not found elsewhere. Now I want to know a lot more about the woman – not just the artist.

Emily Carr: A Biographical Sketch

Emily Carr’s life story has all the qualities of an excellent biography — tragedy, inspiration, triumph, resolve, eccentricity — yet the details of her life have been clouded by her own autobiographical sketches and journals, which describe events as Carr herself liked to remember them.

Since the publication of Maria Tippett’s Emily Carr: A Biography in 1979, numerous scholars, biographers, novelists and playwrights have attempted to make sense of her recollections and capture her life in print. As a result, the image of Carr the artist, with her magical forests and magnificent totems; Carr the author, with her stories of nineteenth-century Victoria and her beloved pets; and Carr the eccentric, animal-loving recluse figure prominently in the Canadian imagination.

The celebrity status she enjoys today would come as a great shock to Carr, who for most of her life felt like an outcast, known more for her eccentricities than her artistic achievements. Quoted from Vancouver Art Gallery

Emily Carr, Alert Bay (1912) Via National Gallery of Canada

Her Obstacles

Despite her broad art education, she faced many obstacles both in and out of the artistic community. She did not conform to all the social expectations of the time, thus setting the pattern of isolation – some self-inflicted and some imposed by the rigid upper middle class society into which she was born. Her work remained unrecognized by the greater art world for many years. She describes in her own writing her maturation as an artist as being more intimately connected to passion for her two main themes, First Nations cultures and the western landscape, than to her broad art education. Because of financial restraints, she worked as a potter, dog breeder, boarding house landlady, and briefly as teacher of art to children. Her health throughout her life was a challenge, and she spent lengthy periods of time in convalescence during which she was unable to actively pursue her art.

Video 2


“She entered the most productive

years of her life at age 57.”

Let that sink in…..bask in the implication….and inspiration!

Admittedly, I am no art historian or expert of any kind, but HONESTLY, some of the comments by two of the men in the above video are downright offensive. For what purpose does one person talk about another person’s physical appearance in such derogatory terms??? And the pompous demagogue who can’t stop talking about supposed sexual themes in Emily Carr’s painting — do I detect a wee bit of projection here? (absolutely no pun intended, but tongue firmly in cheek)

Listen to the artist herself if you want to understand what her paintings represent — to HER. She is quite clear that her passion is for her great western lands and its native cultures. I don’t think she sat in the middle of the western Canadian forests to paint phallic daydreams. Oh dear, sarcasm is slipping out…

Carr Describes Her Inspiration

“Growing Pains” in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr

The Indian people and their Art touched me deeply. By the time I reached home my mind was made up. I was going to picture totem poles in their own village settings, as complete a collection of them as I could…

Indian Art broadened my seeing, loosened the formal tightness I had learned in England’s schools. Its bigness and stark reality baffled my white man’s understanding. I was as Canadian-born as the Indian but behind me were Old World heredity and ancestry as well as Canadian environment. The new West called me, but my Old World heredity, the flavour of my upbringing, pulled me back. I had been schooled to see outsides only, not struggle to pierce…

Indian Art taught me directness and quick, precise decisions. When paying ten dollars a day for hire of boat and guide, one cannot afford to dawdle and haver [sic] this vantage point against that.

I learned a lot from the Indians, but who except Canada herself could help me comprehend her great woods and spaces? San Francisco had not, London had not. What about this New Art Paris talked of? It claimed bigger, broader seeing.

“Growing Pains” in The Complete Writings of Emily Carr, p. 427.

War Canoes, Alert Bay,(1912) source wikimedia commons, detail

“The new West called me,

but my Old World heredity,

the flavour of my upbringing,

pulled me back.”

Emily Carr in “Growing Pains”

Video 3

The Tide Turns At Last

“Her contact with the Group of Seven in 1930 resurrected her interest in art, and throughout the 1930s she specialized in scenes from the lives and rituals of Native Americans. She also showed her awareness of Canadian native culture through a number of works representing the British Columbian rainforest. She lived among the native Americans to research her subjects. Many of her Expressionistic paintings represent totem poles and other artefacts of Indian culture.” Quoted from The Art History Archive

Video 4: Emily Carr and the Group of Seven

Her Unique Style

“Carr experimented with many styles throughout her lengthy career, and her art approximates trends in the development of modernism in the first half of the twentieth century. She may have been influenced by Post-Impressionism, Fauvism, Cubism, Futurism and Abstraction, but she never took any movement to its extreme conclusion, though she was always seen as a radical in conservative British Columbia.” Quoted from Vancouver Art Gallery

Emily Carr: Arbutus Tree (c.1909) watercolor on paper Public Domain via The Athenaeum

“…who except Canada herself could help me

comprehend her great woods and spaces?

San Francisco had not,

London had not.

What about this New Art Paris talked of?

It claimed bigger, broader seeing.”

Emily Carr in “Growing Pains”

Video 5

“Despite changes in her style, approach and intent, she remained absorbed by two principal and often overlapping themes: the “disappearing” First Nations cultures and the western landscape.” Quoted from Vancouver Art Gallery

 In Summary

Emily Carr, (1871 – 1945), is a renowned Canadian artist and writer. Though she lived and died in Victoria, British Columbia, Carr studied in England and France and travelled extensively throughout coastal British Columbia and Alaska, inspired by First Nations people, art and landscapes.  Best known as a painter and author, The Canadian Encyclopedia has described her as a Canadian Icon.

Carr’s professional and personal records, along with over 1000 works of art, are preserved and made available by the BC Archives, part of the Royal British Columbia Museum, Victoria, BC. These works span her entire career and include manuscripts, major paintings in oil and watercolour, drawings, cartoons and works in clay and fabric. Quoted from Google Arts & Cu

“The most astonishing thing about her career is that the most definitive part of it– the part upon which her reputation is based – occurred when she was in her late fifties and early sixties. Hers was a long and uncomfortable apprenticeship.”

Robin Laurence, “Introduction: The Making of an Artist” in Growing Pains: The Autobiography of Emily Carr (Clarke Irwin Canadian Paperback on Kindle) by Emily Carr

For Future Posts

Thus, I am left wanting to know more. In future posts, I plan to feature other Emily Carr paintings, textiles, and pottery with quotes from her own writings.  Her literary accomplishments are equally as intriguing to me, so I will also review her books as time allows.

However, two questions remain:

  • What traits do Maria Sibylla Merian and Emily Carr share that allowed them to burst the gender and social norms of their time to ultimately achieve their goals?
  • If given an opportunity to visit with Maria Sibylla Merian, do you think Emily Carr would leave her chairs down a little while after the visit? 😉

For More Information

Emily Carr: A Biographical Sketch

Emily Carr Chronology of Painting

These do NOT represent my favorite Carr paintings, but it does show the general trends over the years seen in her art. (Future Project: Build Timeline of My Favorites)

Click to see enlarged views:


 Books I Want

Thanks for visiting 🙂


26 Comments Add yours

  1. JMN says:

    Her range is amazing. Such a dazzling painter. I’m glad to get to know her work!

    Liked by 1 person

    1. I missed this – so sorry!! I admire her rebel spirit and especially like her forest paintings. Thanks for commenting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

  2. Thanks for the introduction to this amazing woman and artist who defied the societal norms for women in her time. Love her artistic style that demands attention.

    Liked by 1 person

  3. rothpoetry says:

    This is so very interesting! My wife grew up in Alberta and her sister and brother both live in BC.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Your wife grew up in a very beautiful place. I would love to visit someday. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. rothpoetry says:

        Yes, it is. She grew up north of Edmonton, but we have been to the Canadian Rockies many times with her family. They are gorgeous.

        Liked by 1 person

  4. I get the impression that Emily Carr isn’t well-known outside of Canada. We saw a bunch of her paintings, along with many by the so-called Group of Seven, in the art museum in Toronto when we visited in 2019.

    Liked by 1 person

    1. Some day I would love to see all of their paintings in person. Thanks for visiting, Steve.


      1. We drove all the way from Austin to Toronto (seeing many interesting things on the way there and back, of course). I don’t know where you are; a drive to Toronto might be feasible for you. And there are always planes.

        Liked by 1 person

  5. Olga Álvarez says:

    Thank you for this one 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

  6. SOOOO wonderful!!! Cheers and Thank You!!! 💝

    Liked by 1 person

    1. My pleasure, forresting! Thanks for visiting. 🙂

      Liked by 1 person

      1. My pleasure! 💕


  7. stolzyblog says:

    A really neat find. 🙂

    Liked by 1 person

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