The Canadian painter Emily Carr (1871-1945) was born in Victoria, British Columbia, in 1871, the year British Columbia became the sixth province of Canada. The Pacific coastline of British Columbia was Canada's western frontier, its settler communities interspersed with indigenous villages now known as First Nations communities. Although the settlers and villagers were often economically interdependent, they were culturally at cross-purposes; the settlers assumed their civilizing influence would assimilate the indigenous villages over time, and most villagers were just as determined to resist assimilation. Carr's career tracked the changing cultural values of British Columbia and Canada as a whole in the late 19th and early 20th centuries. From 1890-1892 she studied art in San Francisco, returning to Victoria in 1893 to paint watercolors and teach children's art classes. In late 1898 or early 1899, she visited a Presbyterian mission in Ucluelet, a First Nations community on Vancouver Island, and made watercolor sketches of the village. Over the next several years she traveled to England and France to study landscape design, still life composition, and watercolor technique, and when she returned home she made sketching trips to villages along the Pacific Coast. By 1911 she had set herself the goal of documenting the indigenous cultures of British Columbia in watercolor sketches and finished oils. She was most interested in painting the interlocking images of totem poles: birds, animals, and human figures carved into red cedar trees and painted in bright colors. In 1912 she exhibited her totem paintings in the city of Vancouver and lectured on the villages she had visited, but was disappointed to find that the public was uninterested in viewing (or buying) her work. She had to make a living, so she gave up the life of an artist to manage an apartment building in Victoria. For the next 15 years Carr did little painting. Meanwhile, Canada was changing. Canadians were beginning to think of themselves as a nation rather than an outpost of the British Empire. A national consciousness required a national culture, drawn from its own landscape. In 1927 Carr was invited to exhibit 26 of her paintings at the National Gallery of Canada, side-by-side with artifacts made by indigenous crafts persons. This event recognized native artifacts, including totem poles, as works of art, and acknowledged that Carr's paintings of totem poles were worthy of being displayed in a museum. The experience of participating in this public embrace of her work, after so many years of inattention, inspired Carr to paint again. In the summer of 1928, at the age of 56, she embarked on the first of her late-career sketching trips. One of the villages she visited was Kitwancool, an isolated village on a tributary of the Skeena River, but before she could sketch its impressive stand of totem poles, she had to explain her purpose to Mrs Douse, a tribal leader whom Carr described as having great dignity. Carr told Mrs Douse that she wanted to make pictures of the totem poles because they were beautiful, but also because they were old and would someday be gone. Mrs Douse assented, and for the next several days Carr sketched outdoors in good weather and indoors by Mrs Douse's wood stove when it rained. One rainy day, Carr made a watercolor sketch of Mrs Douse, Chieftainess of Kitwancool (cover ). Emily Carr (1871-1945) Mrs Douse, Chieftainess of Kitwancool, circa 1928, Canadian. Watercolor on paper. 30.5 × 26.4 cm. Courtesy of the Royal British Columbia Museum, British Columbia Archives (http://www.royalbcmuseum.bc.ca/MainSite/), Victoria, British Columbia, Canada; image B-01601. Though Carr is known as a landscape painter, this portrait shows how adept she was at using composition, light, and color to reveal the character of her subject. Mrs Douse's chin is tilted upward so the sunburned planes of her upper cheeks approach the horizontal. Light reflects from her white blouse onto her chin and lower cheeks, casting a soft shadow over her eyes. The tilt of her chin and the shading of her eyes convey pride, authority, and deep concern, and the rough complexion a familiarity with life out of doors. Carr has fun with Mrs Douse's robe and scarf, working strips of color and a mountainous skyline into the folds. When it came time for Carr to leave Kitwancool, she showed Mrs Douse her sketchbook and offered to send her some of the watercolors after she had a chance to copy them in finished oils. In recent years, scholars have written indignant critiques of Carr, alleging that she appropriated native designs for her own work and misrepresented herself as an interpreter of indigenous cultures. Sometimes Carr did not fully understand what she was seeing; she didn't speak native languages and had to communicate through interpreters or with gestures, so she often had to guess the meanings of the images in the totem poles she painted. It is true that as an ethnographer, she was untrained and sometimes inept, but another way to look back at Emily Carr is to absolve her for any mistakes of interpretation she might have made and to see her as she saw herself: as an artist, nothing more.
– American Medical Association
Published: Feb 22, 2012