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The University of Manitoba campuses are located on original lands of Anishinaabeg, Cree, Oji-Cree, Dakota, and Dene peoples, and on the homeland of the Métis Nation. More

Prairie Prestige: How Western Canadian Artists Have Influenced Canadian Art: Prairie Prestige

Prairie Prestige, by Liv Valmestad

Manitoba, L.L. FitzGerald (UMASC - MSS 287, A.09-16, Box 4, Fd. 5, Item 8)

Prairie Prestige, by Liv Valmestad

During the first decades of the twentieth century, Winnipeg was the third largest city in Canada and the crossroads of commerce and merchantry, attracting people from all over the world. Its geographical isolation (approximately 800 km from any city of significant size) and long, harsh winters were conducive to intense creativity in many art forms. According to Russell Harper, noted art historian and author of Painting in Canada: a history, the development of art in Manitoba, like the rest of the Prairie provinces, followed a similar pattern from 1900 to 1940. The first artist groups were formed by like-minded English immigrant landscape watercolourists and art lovers, who formed art galleries and schools: the Winnipeg Art Gallery was established in 1912 and the Winnipeg School of Art in 1913. These institutions attracted art teachers from the east, and together with their students they initiated a groundswell of creativity that continues to develop into the twenty-first century. Today, Winnipeg boasts the most art and cultural institutions and organizations per capita in Canada and is the Cultural Capital of Canada designate for 2010. Winnipeg artist Wanda Koop once said, “When you live on the Prairies, you have no limitations. You walk out into a horizon that goes on forever, and you have this tremendous rush of freedom.” The artists in Prairie Prestige, whose work spans the twentieth century, shared this geographical and artistic freedom. While many were originally immigrants from Europe, all made great contributions to the art scene in Manitoba, and some achieved national and international acclaim. This essay highlights these artists and places them within the greater context of Canadian art of the twentieth century.

The Prairie Prestige artists, through the diversity of their techniques, working methods, and perspectives, exemplify the complexities of the Prairies. At first, many painted the Prairie landscape to gain an understanding of the region, and enhanced this by travelling, living, and studying elsewhere. They showed slices of social and local history, intense and subtle light, and natural history. However, the Prairie landscape dominated their ideas and work. The wildlife painter Angus Shortt, although born in Ireland, became a Prairie person to the core. He once said when returning from “away” that he was always eager to get out from under the mountains and under the fantastic Prairie sky. Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald—who painted primarily landscapes and streetscapes of Winnipeg and the surrounding area—while interested in the light and colour of the Prairies said that “subconsciously the Prairie and the skies get into most things I do no matter how abstract they may be.”(Ann Davis, “A North American artist,” Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald: the development of an artist, p. 63).  Landscape was central to his vision, and although his later landscapes were very abstract and treated like living entities, they demonstrated his belief in nature as a unified whole. Like FitzGerald, George Swinton showed a concern for a more universal relationship with nature. He declared his love for the Prairies and the North, and “saw the presence of Christ in nature.” (Raul Furtado, George Swinton: painter of the Canadian Prairies, WAG artist file). Richard Williams writes that it was Winnipeg and the surrounding Prairie landscape that allowed Swinton to not worry so much about style, but to commune with the subject matter, revealing “its spirit through himself in the spirit of the medium.” (Richard Williams, unpublished manuscript, 1963, One-man exhibition of recent paintings and drawings by George Swinton, brochure, Arch/FA Library, U of M artist file).


Landscape drawing by L.L. FitzGerald (UMASC - MSS 287, A.09-16, Box 4, Fd. 3, Item 1)

Of course landscape painting has historically been used as a vehicle for nationalism, both in Europe in the late nineteenth century and later in Canada by the landscape painters belonging to the Group of Seven. All these artists (Franklin Carmichael, Arthur Lismer, Lawren Harris, A.Y. Jackson, Frank Johnston, J.E.H. MacDonald, Frederick Varley, and Tom Thomson) painted large, brilliantly coloured scenes of the Canadian wilderness with the aim of developing the first distinctly Canadian style of painting.

FitzGerald was the sole western member of the group, and although he believed in the validity of Canada and in the centrality of nature for artists, he did not espouse the nationalistic values of the rest of the group. FitzGerald also epitomized the plight of the western artist at that time, who had to “make it” in Ontario in order to achieve national recognition, while still suffering from a lack of understanding on the part of eastern critics.

The 1930s in Canadian art history show a wide range of highly individual styles. Emily Carr was painting totem poles, native villages, and the forests of British Columbia. Ontario artists Carl Schaefer and David Milne were painting their local landscapes, as was the Prairie painter William Kurelek. The Depression era also spawned a group of Social Realist painters, including Manitoba’s Charles Comfort, Jack Humphrey, and Miller Brittain. By the late 1930s, many Canadian artists began resenting the quasi-national institution the Group of Seven had become and rejected the view that the efforts of a group of artists based largely in Ontario constituted a national vision or style. The Eastern Group of Painters formed in 1938 to counter this notion and restore variation of purpose, method, and geography to Canadian art. The group included Montreal artists whose common interest was painting and an art-for-art’s-sake aesthetic. Although these groups sprouted up in different parts of Canada, did they represent a truly regional approach?

It can be debated whether the common Prairie experience—geography and climate—created a Prairie style or regional school. Many cultural writers accept the premise that Manitoba and Winnipeg artists were culturally isolated and that they had, therefore, a unique regional approach to art. These artists were well read and well travelled, and had access to the contemporary art scene. Like their counterparts in other regions of Canada, they also imitated the major styles and imitated international art movements and the styles of international artists. As we shall see, the Prairie Prestige artists who continued to live and work in Manitoba were not cut off from the national and international art scene, and were influenced beyond their local and regional borders. 


Brigdens of Winnipeg label (WAG - Brigden-PR5.1.1C)

Functioning as a regional school in terms of supporting and nurturing the early careers of many Prairie artists was the graphic design firm Brigdens of Winnipeg Limited, established in 1914 and managed by Arnold O. Brigden. Brigdens was the largest employer of artists in the city, giving them a strong grounding in the language of graphic design. (The firm closed in the 1970s.) Although Brigdens’ main project was the western edition of the Eaton’s mail-order catalogue, the artists worked on other projects related to advertising with a flourish of activity surrounding every deadline.

In the days before art council grants and tenured positions in art faculties, places like Brigdens in Winnipeg, like its counterparts Notmans in Montreal and Grip in Toronto, allowed artists to survive financially while working in an art-related field. Brigdens was the link between the commercial art illustrating world and academic visual arts, with the Brigden family encouraging its employees to pursue fine art endeavours and studies outside of work at the Winnipeg Art Gallery and the School of Art. One such artist was Prairie Prestige’s Angus Shortt, who apprenticed at Brigdens as a wood engraver and was sent to study at the School of Art under Professor FitzGerald, another former Brigdens employee. Artistic reputations flourished in these hothouses, affecting the social and cultural history of the city as well as the nation, and launching the careers of many artists.

Some of the artists employed by Brigdens who went on to national and international prominence—achieving careers as painters and teachers—were Henry Eric Bergman, Charles Fraser, Phillip Surrey, and W.J. Phillips. Charles Comfort, one of Canada’s most well known Social Realists, went on to paint the murals in the Toronto Stock Exchange and become the director of the National Gallery of Canada. Fritz Brandtner used Expressionism to promote Modernism and more European avant-garde styles, first in Winnipeg and later nationally. Gordon Smith became one of Canada’s most respected abstract painters. Hal Foster illustrated Tarzan comics and Prince Valiant books. Charlie Thorson worked for Disney and Warner Brothers studios, creating the original design conceptions for Snow White, Bugs Bunny, and the early versions of Mighty Mouse (Sniffles).  FitzGerald became a member of the Group of Seven.


According to art historian Ann Davis, FitzGerald hated artistic categories, changing as soon as he had created a system, and revisiting themes and media over and over again. After some preliminary training in Winnipeg, like many of his Canadian contemporaries, he studied from 1921 to 1922 at the Art Students League in New York.

Poplar Woods, L.L. FitzGerald (UMASC - MSS 287, A.09-16, Box 4, Fd. 7, Item 5)

There he was taught the value of colour, balance, form, and design—the underlying structure in all his subsequent paintings. Exploring Realism and Naturalism in landscapes and cityscapes, works such as Pritchard’s Fence (1928) and Poplar Woods (1929) are strong compositions with an illustrative quality, balanced by convincing shapes and muted tones. This careful balance of colour and shape is taken even further in Doc Snyder’s House (1931), which took FitzGerald over two years to complete, in part because of his painstaking method of execution. His slow progress was also due to the fact that he could only paint on the weekends, for by this time he was principal at the Winnipeg School of Art, remaining there until 1949.  

FitzGerald joined as the last member of the Group of Seven in 1932 (one year before the group expanded into the Canadian Group of Painters), after his friend and fellow Manitoban, Bertram Brooker, had shown his work to Lawren Harris, both of whom eventually bought FitzGerald’s works. FitzGerald believed in the validity of the Canadian landscape and in the centrality of nature in art, and was one of the few Group of Seven members to depict the Prairies. However, being very individualistic, he did not share the Group’s land-based nationalism. 

Although he felt a spiritual connection with nature, he was not interested in the theosophical overtones and philosophy espoused by Harris and evident in his works. In spite of these artistic and philosophical differences, he was clearly recognized as important by his fellow Group of Seven artists. He exhibited with them for three years and enjoyed the meeting of “kindred souls” and the resurgence and new interpretations of landscape as a subject.

FitzGerald’s work became more abstract beginning as early as the 1940s, when he began concentrating solely on the abstraction of form and the relationship of objects to their surroundings, as well as the organization of space. Paintings such as Abstract Landscape (1942) and Driftwood Forms (1943) demonstrate his belief in nature as a unified whole, and it is possible to see human elements forming part of the landscapes. In 1950, FitzGerald experimented with more decorative and Pointillist techniques in self-portraits, nudes, and still lifes. The search for ultimate depth and definition of form lead to rounded, geometric formations using techniques favoured by the Precisionist movement of the 1930s and employed by American painter Charles Sheeler (Ann Davis, p. 45-48).  Art historian and former Director of the Winnipeg Art Gallery, Patricia Bovey in addition to other European artists, discusses the influence of Russian Suprematism and non-objectivism on FitzGerald’s later works, where he even used a compass and ruler to design his compositions (Patricia Bovey, “Some European Influences on his work, Lionel LeMoine FitzGerald : the development of an artist, pp. 94-100.) He did several “total” abstractions of still lifes and landscapes, culminating with perhaps his most famous, Untitled (Abstract: Green and Gold) (1954), which is stripped down to a design of intersecting planes and forms. But even during this most minimalistic phase, art historian and curator Michael Parke-Taylor writes about how the colours reference the Prairie landscape, the starting point for many of FitzGerald’s works (Michael Parke-Taylor, In seclusion with nature: the later works of L. Lemoine FitzGerald, 1942-1956, p. 35).


Another artist included in Prairie Prestige and a close friend of FitzGerald’s, is Bertram Brooker—painter, poet, playwright, novelist, critic, journalist, graphic artist, and advertising executive. Emigrating from England to Portage La Prairie, Manitoba, he was just 17 when the family moved in 1905, he spent time working for newspapers in Manitoba and Saskatchewan, before moving to Toronto in 1921 to become the marketing editor of Marketing magazine. Brooker’s early artistic works of graphic art and design show the influence of modern design in their overriding flat, two-dimensional quality, which art historian Joyce Zemans attributes to his knowledge of contemporary European abstract artists of the 1913 Amory Show (held in New York and Chicago) (Joyce Zemans, “First fruits: the world and spirit paintings,” Provincial Essays, p.18). In 1923, Brooker joined Toronto’s Arts and Letters Club, where he met Lawren Harris, Fred Housser, and other members of the Group of Seven. Brooker admired the Group for “liberating young artists from the stuffy tradition of strict realism.”  (Anne Newlands, Canadian Art: from Its beginnings to 2000, p.59) Like them, Brooker believed Canadian art should be unique. Brooker often talked to Harris and Housser about the spirituality of art and saw abstract art as a way to explore this symbolism and mysticism, although he did not share Harris’s theosophical beliefs (Harper, p. 326).

Brooker continued to experiment with abstract or non-objective art, and in 1927 he held what is thought to be the first solo exhibition of non-objective paintings in Canada at the Arts and Letters Club, thereby securing his position in Canadian art history as a pioneer of abstract painting. Besides Harris, Brooker was greatly influenced by Kandinsky, particularly by his book Concerning The Spiritual In Art, in which Kandinsky explained the search for the artist’s “inner soul” and theorized about the links between music and painting. These ideas culminated in Brooker’s work Sounds Assembling (1928), where he attempted to paint the colour, structure, rhythm, and energy of music.  As art historian Dennis Reid writes in A concise history of Canadian painting in Canada, it is similar to the work of the American Futurist painter, Joseph Stella. Sounds Assembling was one of two paintings included in a Group of Seven exhibition in 1928. Other paintings in the same vein include Alleluiah (1929) and Resolution (1929/30). The latter painting—in terms of the precise arrangement of forms—showed Brooker’s concern for mathematics, but also, his quest for the fourth dimension. (Zemans, p. 26).  Brooker wrote about this in his 1930 article for Canadian Forum as “a new and puzzling illusionism of space that is foreign to normal visual experience.” 

As Reid points out, Brooker had one of his last exhibits of “pure” abstracts in 1931 at Hart House, University of Toronto. Later that same year, Brooker’s art shifted from pure abstraction back to Realism as seen in Phyllis (Piano! Piano!) (1934) and Torso (1937). Pat Bovey attributes this shift to Brooker’s close working relationship with FitzGerald. (Patricia Bovey, Lionel Lemoine FitzGerald , Bertram Brooker : their drawings).  There were more shifts, including geometric abstractions and Cubism, as Brooker appreciated the Canadian Cubist artist Kathleen Munn and the European artist Raymond Decamp-Valine. However, despite the variation in artistic styles, his work shares the underlying logic of his quest for “oneness” in all creative pursuits. These underpinnings were apparent in his syndicated Southam newspaper column “The Seven Arts” (1928 to 1930), where he analyzed dancing, architecture, theatre, poetry, music, and visual arts.
L'Ile D'Orleans, Bertram Brooker Christmas card, 1941 (UMASC - MSS 16, A.80-53, Box 9, Fd. 7, Item 3)  

L.L. FitzGerald & Bertram Brooker (WAG - Fitzgerald-ACC700.005.1.2C)

FitzGerald and Brooker are the two artists in Prairie Prestige that have garnered the most national and critical acclaim for their contribution to the literature of Canadian art history. Their works have become entrenched in the canon of Canadian art and are discussed in conjunction with the beginning of the modern and abstract movement in Canada.  (Harper, Reid, Nasgaard, Abstract painting in Canada). This movement had initially gained momentum with Lawren Harris, who after his departure from the Group of Seven, further experimented with abstract forms, aiming to represent broad conceptual themes.

By exploring abstract themes—Fauvism, Cubism, Modernism and Abstract Expressionism—as early as the 1920s, these artists challenged the definition of art in Canadian society and were an influence on the post-World War II generation of artists who would form groups such as Toronto’s Painters Eleven and Montreal’s Les Automatistes. However, Modernism—a specific type of abstract art—really did not emerge until the 1950s on the Prairies, with the arrival of American-trained art teachers. In the 1960s, Saskatchewan became the major hub of Modernism with the organization by Kenneth Lochhead of the Emma Lake Workshops at the University of Regina. Lochhead also arranged visits and workshops by American abstract painter Barnett Newman and the leading critic of abstract painting at that time, American Clement Greenberg. Greenberg believed Modernism to be the product of an avant-garde that maintained the standards set by the great art of the past, where the inherent quality of the medium itself was self-referential, such as flat, pictorial-shaped painting and assemblages or constructions, which led to absolute abstraction and a pure, optical experience. Modernism in this focused sense, according to Greenberg, seems not to have had strong roots in Winnipeg, although Don Reichert and Lochhead produced memorable paintings in Winnipeg in the 1960s. After touring the Prairies, in his essay “Clement Greenberg’s view of painting and sculpture in Prairie Canada today” (Canadian Art v. 20, March 1963 pp. 90–107), Greenberg singled out as the centre of art in the prairies Regina with Arthur Mackay and the Regina Five, noted several artists in Saskatoon, but did not write very positively about Winnipeg:

Winnipeg has a thriving art centre, directed by Ferdinand Eckhardt, but it seemed to have proportionately fewer active artists than any other place in Prairie Canada, even though its ratio of wholly professional artists seemed larger. (p.97)

After viewing an impromptu exhibition organized by Dr. Eckhardt at the Winnipeg Art Gallery, the only abstract painter that looked “up to date” was Winston Leathers, and in his article’s section on landscape painting Greenberg praised George Swinton “as one of the luminaries of North American art, whose work tended toward the monumental in an authentic way.” (p. 99).


 

George Swinton is another European-born member of Prairie Prestige. With landscape as his primary subject, he worked in a plethora of media, producing watercolours, oil paintings, drawings, and graphic work. His early paintings were non-objective, clearly showing the influences of Kandinsky, the Fauves, and the German Expressionists in their strong colours and abstract forms. Eventually in the mid-1950s, Swinton moved beyond Abstract Expression into something more “wholly communicative,” denouncing purely aesthetic art as decoration and not wanting to be tied down to a particular style. He believed that his landscapes had to communicate, and that as an artist “the lifeblood of art is experience and communication, fused in the artist’s form.” (Raul Furtado, George Swinton: painter of the Canadian Prairies, WAG artist file). He did several painting cycles, one of which shows that he was influenced by the synthesis of music and art, like Brooker and Kandinsky before him. He did a number of paintings illustrating Gustav Mahler’s “Song of the Wayfarer.” The powerful symbol of the sun inspired Swinton to paint several paintings of it, including one of a solar eclipse.   A prolific artist, he had fourteen solo exhibitions at the Winnipeg Art Gallery.

Swinton wore many hats: writer, critic, collector, and art teacher, having taught at the School of Art, University of Manitoba for twenty years. His teaching career facilitated his travels to the Canadian North to begin a definitive collection of Inuit art and become the recognized authority in this field. 

Cover of catalogue for the Winnipeg Art Gallery exhibit, "Desires and Imaginings: George Swinton Collection of Innocent Art," 10 June - 3 September 2000 (WAG - Swinton-ArF-1C)

He went on to write several books that led to a greater awareness of Inuit art, including Eskimo sculpture published in 1965, and Sculpture of the Eskimo, published in 1972 and re-released in 1999 as Sculpture of the Inuit. Swinton later became critical of Inuit sculpture that in his view was being churned out in an assembly-line fashion to make money, and called for a return to the “soul” of the art form. As a prolific writer, he contributed to many learned journals, and in the 1950s produced sixty-nine Art in Action shows for the CBC.  

In 1987, the Winnipeg Art Gallery celebrated its seventy-fifth anniversary and held several exhibitions, including the two large retrospectives Vistas of Promise: Manitoba 1874–1919 and Contemporary Art in Manitoba, along with two smaller ones showing the works from the private collections of George Swinton (Inuit art) and Ferdinand Eckhardt (German Expressionism). In terms of finding continuity among the widely different exhibits, Winnipeg historian Angela Davis acknowledges their differences and writes that “historical continuity was most clearly reflected in the continuing division between those who decided what the public should be educated to appreciate and what the public actually enjoyed” (Davis, “The Winnipeg art gallery in 1912 and 1987: an historical assessment,” Manitoba History, (17), spring 1989). As expected, the general public could relate to and therefore had a more positive reaction to the representational work of the more conservative artists than the more abstract modern, contemporary works.


This historical dichotomy of representational versus modern is reflected by the remaining artists in Prairie Prestige: Leo Mol, Angus Shortt, and Maude MacVicar. Although not prominent in the literature of Canadian art history—which tended to emphasize the “modern” or “avant-garde”—they excelled in their individual achievements on a national and international level. This is partially because of their pursuit of the academic tradition or style in sculpture, portraiture, and painting. They were far more conservative in their approach and, in most cases, were members of the more conservative Royal Canadian Academy of Arts (RCA). Artists such as Bertram Brooker rejected the RCA in favour of the “Moderns,” a move which led Brooker exhibiting in several international group exhibitions. FitzGerald also left the RCA, first joining the then more “radical” Group of Seven, and later the Canadian Group of Painters. As well, historically for artists like Mol, Shortt, and MacVicar, it has been difficult for their art forms of miniature portraiture, wildlife paintings, and the decorative arts of stained glass and porcelain to achieve significant recognition within the historical hierarchy of art. 

Nevertheless, the general public appreciates art that they can understand and relate to. In discussing the work of Leo Mol, Winnipeg art dealer Bill Mayberry concurred:

“Art is not always about what’s fashionable or what’s the trend…Leo always said, do the work, and let the work speak for itself. He was a sculptor in the classical tradition. These are things that resonate with the common man.” (Morley Walker, Winnipeg Free Press, July 6, 2009).

Leo Mol's sculpted bust of Pope John Paul II (UCAWA, 07.01.037)

Leo Mol started in Winnipeg as a ceramic artist and church painter, producing over 80 stained glass windows. In addition to creating paintings and porcelain figures, Mol excelled in the academic tradition of representational sculpture. He received commissions worldwide, including from the Vatican, where he completed three papal busts. Besides Italy, he earned international acclaim in Germany, the United States, and Argentina. His more famous sculptures include former Prime Minister John Diefenbaker for the Senate Chambers in Ottawa, President Dwight Eisenhower in Gettysburg, P.A., and a sculpture of the Ukrainian poet Taras Shevchenko that stands in both Washington D.C., and Buenos Aires, Argentina. Other sculptures include busts of Sir Winston Churchill, Peter Kuch, John F. Kennedy, Terry Fox, and several full-length sculptures of famous people, including one of Queen Elizabeth II that stands 2.73 metres high outside the Centennial Concert Hall in Winnipeg.

In 1990, Mol donated his entire collection of more than 300 bronzes, paintings, drawings, and terracotta ceramics to the City of Winnipeg, housed since 1992 in the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden, located in Assiniboine Park. Perhaps his greatest legacy, and thought to be one of a kind in Canada, the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden includes an exhibition gallery and his studio. Here one sees an overview of his oeuvre and subjects, including A.J. Casson, F.H. Varley, A.Y. Jackson from the Group of Seven as well as many other busts, several female nudes, Tom Lamb, a famous Manitoban bush pilot, and other iconic Canadian figures. The centrepiece of the Leo Mol Sculpture Garden is the bronze Lumberjacks, a composition of two loggers at work representing the concept of teamwork and balance. So powerfully Canadian is its symbolism, this sculpture was featured on a Canadian stamp in 2002.


Historically, landscape painting in Prairie Canada is rooted in the British landscape and watercolour tradition. As noted earlier, some artists took the more abstract Modernist road, while others continued in this tradition. Angus Shortt, represented in Prairie Prestige, showed these strong connections, having emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1911. Shortt grew up in the Winnipeg area, and like many other Winnipeg artists apprenticed at the graphic design firm Brigdens. Outside of working hours, he was sent to study at the University of Manitoba under FitzGerald, who was known to have admired and copied the British artist Turner in his early landscapes.


After working with engraving, Shortt eventually dedicated his artistic life to painting Prairie birds, wildlife, and landscapes. He studied birds from both a scientific and artistic perspective, producing primarily watercolours early on, and then moving on to larger-scale oil paintings. His career was spent working for a variety of natural history and conservation organizations, including over 30 years with Ducks Unlimited of Canada. His artistic output amounted to over 4,000 paintings, the majority of which are of birds, which can now be found in collections throughout Canada, the United States, Japan, South Africa, Sweden, Ireland, England, and Australia.

Mallards in flight, Angus Shortt (UMASC - MSS 185, A.04-007, Box 1, Fd. 3, Item 34)

Historically, landscape painting in Prairie Canada is rooted in the British landscape and watercolour tradition. As noted earlier, some artists took the more abstract Modernist road, while others continued in this tradition. Angus Shortt, represented in Prairie Prestige, showed these strong connections, having emigrated from Ireland to Canada in 1911. Shortt grew up in the Winnipeg area, and like many other Winnipeg artists apprenticed at the graphic design firm Brigdens. Outside of working hours, he was sent to study at the University of Manitoba under FitzGerald, who was known to have admired and copied the British artist Turner in his early landscapes.  After working with engraving, Shortt eventually dedicated his artistic life to painting Prairie birds, wildlife, and landscapes. He studied birds from both a scientific and artistic perspective, producing primarily watercolours early on, and then moving on to larger-scale oil paintings. His career was spent working for a variety of natural history and conservation organizations, including over 30 years with Ducks Unlimited of Canada. His artistic output amounted to over 4,000 paintings, the majority of which are of birds, which can now be found in collections throughout Canada, the United States, Japan, South Africa, Sweden, Ireland, England, and Australia.   

Reproduction of miniature on ivory of His Excellency Lord Willingdon, Elizabeth Maude MacVicar (WAG - Macvicar-PR15.13.22aC)

The single female member of Prairie Prestige is the miniature portraitist Maude MacVicar, whose career spanned 1920 to 1940. Showing an early interest in drawing, she attended the Winnipeg School of Art (when Alex Musgrove and later Franz Johnson were the School’s principals), and also studied miniature painting on ivory in London. A successful painter of portrait miniatures in watercolours on ivory, her work included private commissions, solo and group juried exhibitions, as well as private exhibitions of her work throughout Canada and the United States. Perhaps her most famous subject was His Excellency, Lord Willingdon, Governor General of Canada from 1926 to 1931.

Prairie Prestige represents a microcosm within the larger macrocosm of the development of Canadian art, from the early establishment of art schools and galleries, to the support of Brigdens of Winnipeg Limited and the formation of nationally prominent art groups. The Prairie landscape was a dominant motif and vehicle, ranging from traditional depictions and leading to abstraction—with various overtones ranging from spiritual, mystical, Christian—and eventually to pure form. We see complete abstraction represented in works from the late sixties and seventies, with the advent of flat, colour field painting that echoed the flat perspective of the Prairie landscape with the sublime space of the ever-present Prairie sky. I believe this “space,” geographical isolation, and long cold winters allowed the artists to really focus on their work.  As internationally acclaimed Winnipeg artist Diana Thorneycroft once said, “It’s dark and the winters are very long, so you have to be resilient and strong to live here.  We stay inside in our homes and studios, and delve deep into ourselves.”