Emily Carr – A biography by Maria Tippett

A few years ago I had the pleasure of viewing a painting by Emily Carr at the Art Gallery of Ontario.  It was a tree bathed in light from above, surrounded by the dark images of other trees hidden in the dense wood.   I studied this painting for a long time trying to understand what it was about it that moved me so.  Then it hit me that the light bathing the tree was God.  Such is the genius of Emily Carr.  It wasn’t until I read the Emily Carr biography by Maria Tippett recently that I realized how right I was in my estimation of the painting.

Emily studied long and hard to develop her craft.  There were years of isolation and loneliness as she strove to become an accomplished artist in the Victorian world in which she lived.  Women were expected to know there place, not go gallivanting around the countryside to paint.  She spent years away from home studying in San Francisco, England, and Paris, where loneliness and depression were constant companions.  Sometimes her depression was so great, she was confined to a sanitorium to recover.  There are many theories surrounding her depression.  One of which is, she suffered from what was then called hysteria – a repression of some long-held secret.  In Emily’s case it could have been the fact that as a young girl her once, much-loved father, betrayed her trust in what Maria Tippett so carefully calls the “brutal telling.”  A lifetime would pass before Emily was able to trust men again.  Oddly enough, it was another man to whom she was able to tell her darkest secret.

Ira Dilworth, though younger than Emily, became friend, confidante, and editor of the books she wrote later in her life when ill health prevented her from painting.  It was through Dilworth that Emily was able to come to terms with what happened to her at the hands of her father.

Another man who had a far-reaching impact on Emily was Lawren Harris of the Group of Seven.  It was through Harris that Emily was able to capture the essence of God in her own paintings.  Harris believed that “art is an intuitive response of the artist to a higher spirit” (p.150) He studied the works of Ralph Waldo Emerson’s transcendentalism and the Eastern and occult writing which informed his work.

Emily was naturally open to anything that would allow her to achieve Harris’ level of artistic perfection.  She began to study transcendentalism for herself, as well as other forms of spirituality.   But eventually she came to her own level of understanding of God, through nature.

It was a balm to Emily’s battered spirit to have someone like Lawren Harris to talk with about art.  Someone who would understand, support, encourage and be a friend, after years of criticism. Even her home province of British Columbia where unable to understand Emily’s work as they were years behind the times in artistic endeavours. Harris himself, (along with the Group of Seven) struggled to be understood as artists, but at least they had each other.  Their work was strong, bold, earthy, big and perhaps frightening to a population whose roots were formed in the European mindset of tranquil country scenes painted in the European manner.  Canada deserved its own style of painting and Emily (along with the Group of Seven and others) were determined to provide it.

I find it interesting that while Emily spent much of her time in the woods painting, it frightened her.  This is an example of her determination and courage to overcome not only her fear of the woods, but in her desire to live a bigger life through her painting and through her deepening understanding of the nature of God.
Emily continued to paint throughout her life despite numerous setbacks with her heart as well as a number of strokes. When she couldn’t paint, she wrote.  She once said, “I have painted and written because I could not help it.”  (p.275)

I wish Emily could have lived to see the level of artistic success her painting has reached.  But then again, maybe she wouldn’t have been the Emily we know and love:  courageous, talented, at times grouchy, misunderstood, and certainly not one to follow the crowd.

While getting her affairs in order towards the end of her life in 1944, Max Stern sold 38 of Emily’s paintings for a mere $1,000.00.  In 2013 Michael Audain paid $3.39 million for a painting called The Crazy Stair, setting a record for Carr at auction (and for a female Canadian artist).  It seems that even in death, Emily is still setting new standards.

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