Undaunted rediscovers Canada’s trailblazing female painters
The AGA’s newest exhibition, Undaunted: Canadian Women Painters of the 19th Century features 30 female artists who either immigrated to Canada or were born in Canada between the mid-19th to early 20th century. The art may span 81 years, but the narrative the collection reveals is concise.
Many public art gallery collections contain a section of small paintings by women who were involved in the organization’s founding.
“Often those works end up relegated to an education collection, or they get de-accessioned because they weren’t ‘professional artists,’” says the exhibition’s curator Laura Ritchie. “We sometimes call them closet works, that someone in the ‘60s or ‘70s decided that they weren’t good or they weren’t worth it. So those paintings by women artists get shoved into a closet and no one thinks about them.”
Undaunted goes directly against this outdated practice and shows these women as not only successful artists, but as important advocates that sparked progress.
“They were making paintings and making artworks in a kind of a unprecedented fashion,” Ritchie says. “These were women who showed an undaunted spirit by striving to be professional artists in an age when that was quite challenging, for women especially.”
Stories of the women are heavily featured in Undaunted, something that was very important to Ritchie. Told through little stories and connections to trailblazing organizations, the women were widely unrecognized in their time, and still are.
“Many of them are not household names,” she says. “Their stories are undertold, and getting to see them all together in one place regardless of their gender makes you excited about the things that people can do, the boundaries that people can cross when they have that pioneering spirit.”
Being a female painter in the early 1900s was a daring venture, let alone painting professionally exclusively. These women broke through the ceilings resting upon them, in their art and their societal lives.
“One of the women in the show, Lady Aberdeen—who was a Vice-Regal Consort to Canada—her husband was the Governor General of Canada in 1893,” Ritchie says. “She was the first woman to address the House of Commons in Canada; she was the first women to receive an honourary degree in Canada; and she was the first president of the International Council of Women [founded in 1888].”
The exhibition is certainly not exhaustive.
“This isn’t the whole story; we could have included many more artists and many more works,” Ritchie says. “It doesn’t account for the stories of Indigenous women, women of colour, or trans women.”
As you progress through the show, the art reflects the time it was created. The earlier works from the late 1800s are more traditional, showing detail, which reflects the romanticist and realist styles of Europe at the time.
As the show goes on, the pieces begin to express a more modern impressionistic approach—reminiscent of reveared Canadian landscape painters, The Group of Seven—which was more popular in the early to mid-1900s.
Of the 53 works of landscape, portrait, and abstract only 14 are not from the AGA’s collection, something Ritchie is very proud of. And in fact many, of the pieces are not new to the AGA’s collection, something that proves how formative a role the institution has played in collecting works by female artists.
“It’s really important to listen to and tell stories that in one moment might be a little bit underheard,” she says. “Every time we open up a new exhibition that helps people be curious, or inquisitive, or filled with wonder about a moment in our shared collective history we also hope that we’re opening up pathways for bigger conversation and new histories to be written.”
Sat., Dec. 2 – Sun., Mar. 25
Art Gallery of Alberta
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