1871 - 1945
watercolour on paper, circa 1914
signed Emily Carr and on verso inscribed "$25.00" and with the artist's remarks (see below) and with the Roberts Gallery framing label
12 3/4 x 11 in 32.4 x 27.9 cm
Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000
Preview at: Heffel Toronto – 13 Hazelton Ave
Private Estate, British Columbia
Emily Carr, Klee Wyck, 1941, pages 37 and 142 in the 2003 edition
Emily Carr is not renowned for her portraiture but that art form is, nevertheless, an important part of her legacy. She portrayed her friends and family and, of course, herself, but among her most interesting portraits are those she did of First Nations men, women and children. These images start with a series of drawings she executed on her visit to Ucluelet in 1898, and they continue sporadically through the early decades of the twentieth century. These works are undated, so placing them within her career is based on style or our knowledge of Carr’s movements, such as the 1928 paintings Mrs. Douse, Chief at Kitwancool, William Russ and Clara Russ (all in the collection of the Royal BC Museum and Archives).
The painting of First Nations villages and totem poles was something Carr had to negotiate, because these poles and houses were the property of First Nations families, as her story “Kitwancool” in Klee Wyck suggests, and this was equally true of her requests to portray individuals. As she recounts in her story “Ucluelet,” Mrs. Wynook, an Elder, speaking to the missionary, “told how the old Indians thought the spirit of a person got caught in a picture of him, trapped there so that, after the person died, it had to stay in the picture.” Indeed, Carr goes on to write, “Tell her that I will not make any more pictures of the old people.”
How then did she come to do this watercolour of an old man? We do not know his identity or the date, although there is some affinity with Mrs. Green, Mother of Clara Russ, which dates from circa 1912 (Royal BC Museum and Archives). Equally, we do not know the provenance of the work, but there is an intriguing note on the back of the frame, apparently a transcription of remarks Emily Carr made about the work to Irene Clarke:
“I haven’t done many portraits,” she said, “because it seemed an impertinence to look as deeply into someone as you have to, to paint a true portrait. The Great Spirit had told the old man that his time had come, so he went to bed, pulled up the bed covers and tried very hard to obey, but he wasn’t able to do so. When I had finished his portrait he got up and went fishing.”
Clarke was married to William Clarke, the editor of Oxford University Press, the original publisher of Klee Wyck. In March of 1941, the Clarkes visited Carr in Victoria, and this eventually led to a contract for the book, which went on to win a Governor General’s Literary Award. This raises the tantalizing possibility that the work belonged to the Clarkes, and was acquired by them on their visit to Carr in 1941. The Roberts Gallery framing label on verso, located at 29 Grenville Street, Toronto, from 1924 to 1948, suggests that the Clarkes had the work framed upon their return to Toronto. Regrettably, none of this can be substantiated, but it suggests a direct connection to Carr. The note does accurately describe the painting, and Irene Clarke definitely met Carr in 1941. The image is a strong, well-painted depiction of an older First Nations man facing the world. Carr has given the figure convincing volume and life, and the idea that he might soon arise from his bed and go fishing is a delightful one. We see an individual of both character and depth, and we realize that Carr has, indeed, looked “deeply…to paint a true portrait.”
We thank Ian M. Thom, Senior Curator - Historical at the Vancouver Art Gallery from 1988 to 2018, for contributing the above essay.
Estimate: $80,000 - $120,000
All prices are in Canadian Dollars
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