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Independent Spirit: Early Canadian Women Artists

by A.K. Prakash

It’s tempting to assume that Canadian women artists of the 19th and early 20th centuries were second-rate, given that the male-dominated canon of art history has portrayed them as such, simply by exclusion. Independent Spirit helps dispel such tendencies. A.K. Prakash, art advisor to the Thomson family, the Prime Minister’s Office, the Canada Council, and UNESCO, among others, argues convincingly – at times reverentially – for the significance of the 36 artists profiled in this revealing four-part compendium.
    Designed to encourage further study, the first two sections, “Trailblazers” and “Masters of Their Craft,” pair enthusiastic descriptions and brief biographical notes with full-colour images. A comprehensive biographical section follows, ending with a fascinating index of early Canadian women artists, including many not
featured in the book.
    A celebration of Canada’s greatest female artists is a wonderful thing, and for that alone, this book is a necessity. It’s deplorable that Charlotte Schreiber, who arrived from England in 1880, becoming the first female academic in the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts, and Emily Coonan, whose stylistically brave brushwork made her one of Canada’s early modernists, have not been duly recognized.
    Prakash gives each artist equal weight, though some stand out, most notably those who had the financial means to study abroad under European masters. Lilias Torrance Newton, well in command of her own style, was the first Canadian to paint portraits of Queen Elizabeth and Prince Philip, while Emily Carr’s unique sense of spirituality, expressed through the force of nature, makes her perhaps the only true original here.
    Intended as a journey, this book delivers in spades. A warning, however: the book’s antiquated cover design will do little to attract today’s young artists, surely its most important audience.