Carr, Emily (1871–1945)

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Carr, Emily (1871–1945)

Canadian painter of totem poles and forest scenes who belatedly achieved both international and national recognition as one of her nation's greatest artists. Name variations: Millie. Born Emily Carr on December 13, 1871, in Victoria, British Columbia (Canada); died in Victoria on March 2, 1945; daughter of Richard and Emily (Sauders) Carr; attended the California School of Design (later renamed the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art) in San Francisco, California, for over two years, the Westminster School of Art in England for two years, and the Academie Colarossi in Paris, France, for several months; never married; no children.

Left home for art school in San Francisco (1891); began a period of study and travel in England (1899); left Victoria to study in France (1910); first national exhibit of her work held (1927); had most productive and creative period of painting (1928–36); suffered serious heart attack, beginning of declining health (1937); published first book (1941); received Governor General's Award for Klee Wyck (1942).

Selected paintings:

Tanoo, Q.C. Islands (Provincial Archives British Columbia, 1913); Indian Church (Art Gallery of Ontario, 1929); Blunden Harbour (National Gallery of Canada, 1930); Forest, British Columbia (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1931); Above the Gravel Pit (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1936); Cedar (Vancouver Art Gallery, 1942).

Selected publications:

Klee Wyck (1941); The Book of Small (1942); The House of All Sorts (1944); Growing Pains (1946); The Heart of a Peacock (1953); Pause: A Sketchbook (1953); Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr (1966).

To her contemporaries, both friends and acquaintances, Emily Carr was undoubtedly an eccentric woman. Never married, she operated a boarding house, raised dogs, and produced curio pottery to make a living. She could often be found sketching in some wooded area dressed in bizarre clothing and smoking a cigar while surrounded by a curious array of birds and animals. All of these factors were unusual, even outrageous, for a woman living in the conservative society of early 20th-century Canada. But Carr was also an oddity because of her art. She produced paintings that many of her time could not understand nor appreciate. Rejecting traditional methods of painting realistic images, she sought to capture the emotions that the objects evoked. Consequently, her paintings never achieved wide popular appeal during her lifetime. By the late 1920s, the artistic community had begun to recognize her creative genius, however, and Emily Carr is now viewed as one of Canada's greatest artists. Her paintings provide a vivid testimonial to the inherent beauty and mysticalness of nature.

I drove ahead through … life, to get time and money to push further into art, not the art of making pictures and becoming a great artist, but art to use as a means of expressing myself, putting into visibility what gripped me in nature.

—Emily Carr

Emily's parents, Richard and Emily Sauders Carr, were originally from England but met in San Francisco where Richard had made a small fortune as a merchant during the California Gold Rush of 1849–54. The couple immigrated to Victoria, British Columbia, in 1863 because of reports of a new gold rush in the area of the Fraser and Thompson rivers. On arrival, the Carrs brought with them two small daughters. By 1875, their family was complete with six children: five girls and one boy. The fifth child (and fifth girl) had been born in 1871 and was named Emily.

Emily Carr had an average childhood. In the 1870s, Victoria was a frontier town, born of the gold rush, and had only existed for a couple of decades. Thus, it lacked the characteristics and services of a settled area. Seizing opportunities, Richard Carr established a wholesale business from which he prospered in the following years. The family was not wealthy but comfortable. The Carrs built a proper house, with large gardens, in the prestigious area of town. Richard Carr provided all of his children with an education, including both public and high school. In this frontier environment, young Emily could always find a stretch of wilderness in which to re-treat. From a young age, she displayed the love of outdoors, which would characterize her adult life and paintings. She also displayed her love of animals. She was continually picking up strays, both wild and domesticated, and bringing them home. Rebellious and non-conformist in nature, she preferred climbing trees to the more appropriate feminine preoccupations of the time. Never particularly interested in academics, Carr graduated from public school 11th in a class of 13 in 1888.

Family life was tumultuous at times. Richard Carr was stern with his children. A religious man, his family was expected to observe daily prayers and all-day church attendance on Sundays. As a teenager, it seems Emily's relationship with her father was tense, perhaps even hostile. In her youth, however, she appears to have spent considerable time with her father, walking and sharing common interests. Her relationship with her mother is more uncertain. A frail woman, her mother became increasingly ill (and eventually bed-ridden) after the birth of her last child in 1875. She died in 1886. Emily Carr's most important female relationships seems to have been with her sisters. Throughout most of their lives, the five Carr sisters remained in close proximity, often living together. As the youngest (and most cantankerous), Emily was often treated as a difficult child by her siblings, even during her adult years. But despite frequent fighting, she looked to them, throughout her life, for support, love, and companionship.

After the death of Richard Carr in 1888, various opportunities became available to Emily. She entered high school that fall but quit after only one year. Her father had left a significant estate in trust for his children. After convincing the estate administrator of the seriousness of her interest in art, Carr was given the money necessary to relocate to San Francisco where she enrolled in the California School of Design (later renamed the Mark Hopkins Institute of Art) in the fall of 1891. Due to problems with family finances, she was forced to leave just a few months shy of completing her third year and did not receive her university certificate. In 1899,

she again left Victoria, this time for London, England, where she enrolled in the Westminster School of Art for two years. In the spring of 1901, Carr continued her art education by traveling through the English countryside, studying under a number of art instructors. Both of these periods were important to her development and gave her the means to get away from Victoria and the watchful eyes of her sisters. Living alone, she had the opportunity to develop her independence as well as to meet new people and travel. By this time, Carr had committed herself to a lifelong career as an artist. She had begun her struggle to capture the beauty of nature, particularly of forests, a theme that would dominate her work as a mature artist. But her painting style remained traditional. She struggled to capture images exactly as they appeared (like a photograph). At this point, she was still unaware, or at least had not been influenced, by the impressionist work being done in France.

Carr's return to her native city of Victoria meant living with her sisters in the family home, at least for a brief period. Since childhood, she had been strong willed and had tended towards behavior deemed inappropriate. With age, she had become increasingly eccentric. Her sisters were more conventional; they attended church and participated in charitable organizations, activities that were fitting for middle-class women of the time. But Emily Carr did not enjoy such ventures and was generally intolerant with the middle-class "society" ladies with whom her sisters associated. Since returning from England in 1904, she had acquired some habits that her sisters found repulsive. Emily Carr smoked, swore on occasion, played cards, and insisted on riding horses astride rather than sidesaddle. Furthermore, her love of animals continued; at any given moment, she could be found living among a large assortment of pets. Into advanced age, Carr's house, studio, and yard was littered with cages containing parrots, finches, cockatoos, squirrels, chipmunks, raccoons, numerous dogs and cats, and even at one time, a monkey named "Woo." Add to this, Carr could be moody, cantankerous, and rude, so much so that she offended many people and made others wary of approaching her. Still, she and her sisters remained close, even if their relations were often strained.

Contributing to this image of eccentricity was her connubial state. By 1904, when she turned 33, it was becoming clear that Emily Carr would not marry. An attractive woman, she had her share of suitors during her early adulthood. One man, William "Mayo" Paddon, was so enamored he followed her to England to propose. Although it appears they were in love, Carr refused his overture for reasons that are not clear. Many years later, she addressed this issue in her journal. Speaking of the "love" she had "killed," she argued: "I think it was a bad, dreadful thing to do. I did it in self-defence because it was killing me, sapping the life from me." Whatever the reason, Carr attracted no further suitors after her return from England.

She had a number of important friendships, however, including one with Lawren Harris, a prominent Canadian artist and member of the Group of Seven. Another lifelong friendship was with Sophie Frank , a Squamish Indian of the Salish nation who lived on the North Vancouver Reserve. Mired in poverty and sometimes alcohol, Sophie had 20 children of which only one survived. Though the Canadian artist and the Native Indian were worlds apart in background and life experiences, the friendship endured. Carr also interacted well with children (at least until old age). During sojourns between art schools, she successfully taught art to children to make a living. Her classes were so popular that parents began to seek her out, especially in Vancouver where she lived from 1906 to 1910. Playful and relaxed, Carr's sessions were appealing to children, especially given the atmosphere of her studio, which was always filled with animals crawling over desks and chirping in cages.

With savings accumulated from teaching, Carr left for France in 1910 to pursue art classes one final time. This year of study was crucial because it marked her departure from traditional methods to impressionism. It is not evident whether Carr was aware of this new way of painting previous to 1910, but it is clear that her time in France convinced her of its utility. After 1910, she began a gradual transformation in style. She no longer attempted to achieve an exact, photographic image of the item being portrayed. Impressionism gave her the freedom to experiment with color, form, and perspective to convey an emotion or an idea. After 14 months studying at both the Academie Colarossi in Paris and in the countryside under several private instructors, Carr headed back to western Canada to try her new methods on the subject matter she loved the most, the natural environment and Native peoples of British Columbia.

During her lifetime, Emily Carr was known primarily for her paintings of Native life and particularly of the totem poles of British Columbia's coastal Indians. This subject matter dominated much of her early work. Her fascination with Native images began in 1898 when she spent the summer at Ucluetet, a remote Native village on the Northern British Columbian coast where one of her sisters was training as a missionary. It was here that the Indians nicknamed her "Klee Wyck" ("the one who tends to laugh"), a sign that she interacted well with the people of the village. Over the next 30 years, Carr made several extensive trips into Indian country. By 1907, her stated purpose was to create a permanent record of the totem poles that were fast disappearing from the landscape. Some of her trips, such as the one in the summer of 1912, were so extensive that they took her to remote areas beyond the reach of modern services like trains and hotels. On occasion, Carr slept in vacant buildings or on the beach. Often, she had to travel by canoe or gas-powered launch through bug-infested wilderness to reach the sites that interested her. From these trips, she acquired a reputation for having lived among the Indians. This was not uncommon for male artists but unique for a woman.

Throughout her travels, Carr acquired a large number of sketches that she used over the years to create some of her most celebrated paintings. The gradual evolution of her work is evident in these renderings. The work derived from her 1912 trip into Indian country is traditional in method despite her conversion to impressionism in 1910. Her dedication to preserving a record of the totem poles compelled her to paint them as she saw them (rather than as she felt about the images). The totems were rapidly disappearing, and Carr had little time to paint all she wanted. Paintings such as Tanoo, Q.C. Islands, 1913 are vivid reproductions of the images she saw in 1912. By the late 1920s, her Indian paintings were much more impressionistic. Her final trip was in 1928, after which many of her paintings were reworkings of earlier sketches, or, as in the case of one of her best works Blunden Harbour, 1930, they came from photographs. In these later paintings, much of the background detail is removed. Form and color are often exaggerated, creating mystical, awe-inspiring central images.

A second theme, found primarily in Carr's later paintings, is the British Columbia forest. Having become a subject of interest in the 1920s, it dominated her work after 1930. In the generally impressionistic forest paintings, she struggled to show the existence of God in nature. On November 12, 1931, she wrote of the feelings she was trying to capture:

Go out there into the glory of the woods. See God in every particle of them expressing glory and strength and power, tenderness and protection. … [G]o into the woods alone and look at the earth crowded with growth. … Feel this growth, the surging up ward, this expansion, the pulsing life, all working with the same idea, the same urge to express the God in themselves—life, life, life, which is God, for without Him there is no life.

In the 1930s, Carr produced some of her most acclaimed paintings, many of which sought to represent God through the beauty and majesty of the forest.

During her life, Emily Carr struggled to achieve recognition as an artist. Like many others, she was never able to support herself financially from sales of work. Though, on occasion, sporadic sales gave her extra income, she could not rely on them for her needs. But she did receive national recognition in the form of critical praise and invitations to exhibit. Up until 1927, most of Carr's work was displayed in local exhibits in the Victoria and Vancouver areas, for which she received mixed reviews. "Discovery" came in 1927 when the director of the National Gallery of Canada viewed her work on Native sites and decided to include it in the Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art. This brought Carr's work to national attention, in particular giving her exposure in Central Canada (as the exhibit traveled through Canada's major centers). Her work was praised and eventually purchased by the National Gallery and the National Museum. This exhibit also brought Carr into contact with major Canadian artists, including the prominent Group of Seven. From them, in particular Lawren Harris, she received praise, encouragement, and constructive criticism. With national fame, Carr also began to receive more praise and recognition in British Columbia.

Still, Carr had to make a living. In 1913, she used the remainder of her inheritance to build a boarding house near the family home. From this, she hoped to make enough income to live on. Often, however, the rents did not suffice, forcing her to grow vegetables and raise chickens and rabbits in the back garden for extra money. She did not like being a landlord, a fact revealed in her often scathing treatment of former tenants in her memoir The House of All Sorts. Not only did boarding-house life require a great deal of cooking and cleaning, which took time away from painting, but it also required constant interaction with people, which Carr often found difficult. Much more enjoyable and financially successful was her raising of dogs. From 1917 to 1921, Carr ran a kennel, breeding Bobtail sheepdogs. During the latter half of the 1920s, she switched to Belgian griffons, which were smaller and easier to manage. After 1924, she was also successful at selling pottery, which she fired in her back garden and painted with Native motifs. It not only sold well but was displayed at arts-and-crafts shows throughout western Canada. Along with her pottery, Carr also turned to creating hooked rugs with Indian motifs. Despite her efforts at subsistence and the apparent success of her art, she was financially insecure throughout her life. There were few jobs available to women in the early 20th century; most turned to marriage for support. Given the limitations placed before her, Carr was reasonably successful living as a single, self-supporting woman.

In 1935, she gave up the boardinghouse and moved into a small house on her own. Two years later, in early January 1937, she suffered a major heart attack. It was the end of the most productive artistic period in her life and led to a permanent change in lifestyle. Physically, she was no longer able to pursue many of her interests and was forced to get rid of most of her animals and move in with her one remaining sister Alice, who was near blind and also in poor health. While Carr continued to exhibit her paintings, her illness meant she was unable to withstand the rigors of going into the woods to sketch. Although she occasionally visited wooded areas on the outskirts of Victoria over the next few years, most of her painting was done from existing sketches. Oftentimes, Carr even found the act of painting to be taxing. Thus, from 1937 to 1945, she suffered through a long and frustrating period of increasing invalidism.

Her mind, however, remained active even as her body was failing. Always a woman of unlimited energy, she turned her attention to a new interest—writing memoirs. Carr had expressed some interest in writing short stories previous to 1937 by taking courses and writing some narratives, which reflected her early experiences. From 1927 to 1941, she had also kept a journal that was eventually published under the title Hundreds and Thousands. Her most prolific writing period covered the years 1934 to 1942 when she compiled a wide assortment of stories. She wrote about her experiences in the Indian villages, about her childhood, and about her adventures as a landlady. Essentially, the stories were memoirs (and were intended to be), but they had a literary merit that drew the reader into her experiences. The quality of the writing was recognized by Ira Dilworth, a broadcasting executive and choir conductor, who took it upon himself to assist Carr by editing the tales and bringing them to publishers. In 1941, his efforts paid off with the publication of Klee Wyck. Dilworth also became an important friend. Confined and isolated by her poor health, Carr was visited by Dilworth and often received letters. She achieved early recognition for her writing when Klee Wyck was given the Governor General's Award for nonfiction in 1942. Carr was further overjoyed when told the book was to be issued for use in the schools. Over the next few years, with Dilworth's help, Carr worked hard to ensure her other stories were edited and compiled into their final form. She succeeded in seeing The Book of Small and The House of All Sorts published during her lifetime.

Carr's productivity during these years is amazing given the state of her health. The heart attack in 1937 had been followed by a major stroke in 1940, another heart attack in 1942, and another stroke in 1944. At times, she had such difficulty breathing that she was confined to sitting in bed for long periods. Yet, she defied doctor's orders and continued to write and edit. During a few respites of improved health, she actually resumed painting, including an eight-day sketching trip to Mount Douglas Park near Victoria, during which she produced Cedar (1942), visible proof of her continuing creative genius. Carr's acclaim, both as a writer and an artist, was growing during the 1940s. A national exhibit of her paintings in 1944 resulted in 38 of the 60 works being sold within the first two months. Both The Book of Small and The House of All Sorts also received critical praise. To top it off, Carr received news in early 1945 that the University of British Columbia was going to confer the honorary degree of Doctor of Letters on her in May. She was proud and perhaps a little amused by this news, given her school performance as a child. Emily Carr did not live to see the degree conferred, however, for she died only a few days later on March 2, 1945.


Carr, Emily. Hundreds and Thousands: The Journals of Emily Carr. Toronto: Clarke, Irwin, 1966.

MacEwan, Grant. … And Mighty Women Too. Saska toon: Western Producer Prairie Books, 1975.

Tippett, Maria. Emily Carr: A Biography. Toronto: Oxford University Press, 1979.

suggested reading:

Carr, Emily. The Emily Carr Omnibus. Introduction by Doris Shadbolt. University of Washington, 1993.


Journals, manuscripts, and letters of Emily Carr located in the National Archives of Canada, Ottawa, Ontario.

Catherine Briggs , Ph.D. candidate, University of Waterloo, Waterloo, Ontario, Canada