By: Debra Antoncic PhD, Associate Curator, RiverBrink Art Museum
This summer RiverBrink Art Museum, located in Queenston, Niagara-on-the-Lake, provides a focused look at the contributions made by women artists in two exhibitions. “Female Self- Representation and the Public Trust: Mary E. Wrinch and the AGW Collection,” curated by Catharine Mastin and organized and circulated by the Art Gallery of Windsor, and “35: Women Artists in the RiverBrink Collection,” showcase the range of accomplishment by women artists from the late 18th century up to the 1970s. The first, devoted to Toronto artist Mary E. Wrinch (1877-1969), surveys the artist’s work as a painter and printmaker, while the second showcases the work of women artists in painting, printmaking, drawing and sculpture. Several of the art works in this exhibition, from the Samuel E. Weir Collection, are on display at the art museum for the first time.
The dearth of attention to the work of women artists, famously explored by U.S. art historian Linda Nochlin in a 1971 essay in ArtNews, is an important reference point for both exhibitions. Nochlin’s essay was framed as a question: “Why have there been no great women artists?” In her response, the art historian identified systemic barriers that hindered the careers of women artists, from lack of access to the nude model and limited educational opportunities at art academies, to the very notion of individual creative genius as an exclusively male attribute.
Expectations regarding the role of women in society have also played a role in limiting opportunities for woman artists. Curator and art historian Catharine Mastin has identified that artist Mary Wrinch supported her husband’s artistic career and posthumous legacy, as well as that of his first wife, artist Mary Hiester Reid, before she could attend to her own career. It was left to Wrinch, for instance, to follow up on correspondence between the prominent architect-artist George Reid and RiverBrink founder Samuel Weir after the artist’s death in 1947, and to complete the sale of the two etchings selected by Weir from a suite of works. In this transaction, the artist Mary Evelyn Wrinch was acting as Mrs. George A. Reid. Her own legacy, in the form of donations to the Art Gallery of Windsor, was postponed until late in her life.
An artist and educator who trained initially in the art of the miniature, Wrinch moved on to paint oil-on-panel boards and on enlarged stretched canvases, beginning in the 1910s, followed by printmaking in the 1920s. Examples of her work in different media, including a delicate watercolour on ivory, oil paintings, and both colour and black and white prints, are on display. The exhibition also includes one of the artist’s key blocks cut out of linoleum. This material used as floor covering, first explored by artists in Germany at the beginning of the 20th century, remains a popular and inexpensive print matrix. Indeed, after discovering the medium in the 1920s, Wrinch virtually abandoned painting altogether. Her masterful exploration of the medium of the linocut is evident in the assembled prints in the exhibition.
While “Female Self-Representation” focuses on one artist, the second exhibition devoted to the work of women artists is broader in scope. The title, “35: Women Artists in the RiverBrink Collection,” references the fact that, out of more than five hundred artists whose work is included in the RiverBrink collection, only thirty-five are women. This disparity, a reflection of the interests and preoccupations of RiverBrink founder Samuel Weir, is certainly not unique, given the time and place of the formation of the core of the collection, from the 1920s to the 1970s. In recent years there have been attempts to address this disparity, with the addition of work by Canadian artists such as Yvonne McKague Housser, Florence Wyle and Florence McGillivray. These new works have expanded the scope of the collection in important ways.
The majority of the pieces in the exhibition are from the 20th century, but the exhibition includes examples of much earlier works, such as Elizabeth Simcoe’s Coastal Landscape, an 18th-century watercolour on birch bark. This unique painting surface suggests something of the variety of the objects on display, from bronze sculpture, plaster relief, oil on canvas, drawings, and printmaking in various forms. While diverse, these art works share one common trait: they were all created by women artists, some internationally famous, others relatively obscure. The variety of techniques and subjects should not come as a surprise, nor should the relatively small number of women artists in the collection. Both are characteristic of the work and ongoing reception to the art production of women artists. While much has changed since Sam Weir began to collect art in the 1920s, women artists remain underrepresented in the collections of public galleries.
One of the noteworthy art works in the exhibition is Emily Carr’s Indian Barn, Friendly Cove from 1929. Yuquot, or Friendly Cove, is located on Nootka Island in Nootka Sound, just west of Vancouver Island. It was the summer home of the Nuu-chah-nulth people for generations. In pre-contact times the settlement housed approximately 1,500 people in some twenty traditional wooden longhouses, the “Indian Barn” of the title. Now considered one of the most significant works in the collection, Sam Weir was less enthusiastic when he purchased this watercolour in 1953. In a letter to Ira Dilworth, a writer, broadcaster, and longtime supporter of Carr, Weir wrote “the work of Emily Carr is, of course, important. But I am of the view that in time the furor she has created will subside. There has never been a great woman painter.” History has proven the art patron wrong, and Carr is today one of Canada’s best-known artists.
The exhibition begins with a look at how women have documented, recorded, and responded to the Canadian landscape. It continues with an exploration of portraiture and genre scenes, including work by British artist Laura Knight, who applied a perceptive eye to the denizens of the world of theatre and ballet in London between the wars. Several of the artists in this section were daughters of painters, and therefore came to the profession in a time-honored fashion. The final room features prints and works on paper, including a series of prints that came into the collection via the Society of Canadian Painter-Etchers and Engravers. Each year, one outstanding print was selected by member artists and offered as a limited edition print to Honorary Members, including Sam Weir. As a result of this initiative, RiverBrink has a significant number of prints by women artists.
One of the significant outcomes of an exhibition of this kind is the opportunity to direct attention and research to unknown artists. While artists such as Mary Cassatt remain internationally famous and their work held in high regard, many other women artists languish in obscurity. The names of a surprising number of female artists, well-known in their lifetime, have disappeared from the record. One such artist is Ada Killins, whose watercolour Old Dam at Glen Cross, is featured in the exhibition. A teacher for many years in Niagara Falls, Killins studied with Canadian artist Carl Schaefer and exhibited at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1943. Other new discoveries include silkscreen prints by Ella Waukey and Lenore Keeshig, artists from Neyaashiinigmiing (Cape Croker) on the Bruce Peninsula.
As evident in these two exhibitions, many women did establish solid careers as artists and teachers, despite the odds. And important gains have been made in researching and documenting the lives and art practices of women artists. Much remains to be done, however, in raising popular and scholarly awareness of the many talented women artists of both the past and present.