Artwork by Efa Prudence Heward,  Mrs. Decco (1940)

Prudence Heward
Mrs. Decco (1940)

oil on canvas
signed upper right; the artist’s name and address inscribed on a label on the reverse; a portrait sketch of a woman on the reverse
24 x 20.25 ins ( 61 x 51.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $60,000.00$40,000.00 - $60,000.00

Price Realized $90,000.00
Sale date: June 9th 2021

Estate of the artist
Mrs. A.R.G. Heward, Montreal
Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal
Private Collection, Toronto
Private Collection, British Columbia
Contemporary Arts Society Art of our Day in Canada, Art Association of Montreal, November 22 - December 15, 1940 as “Mrs. Decco”
Memorial Exhibition Prudence Heward 1896-1947, National Gallery of Canada, Ottawa, March 4-29, 1948 (also shown at Toronto, Montreal, London, Winnipeg, Edmonton, Calgary, Vancouver, Brandon, Windsor), no. 12 as “Italian Woman”
E.R. Hunter, “Beauty Not Stressed at Annual Exhibit,” Gazette (Montreal), November 23, 1940
Robert Ayre, “Exhibition of ‘Art Of Our Day’ By Contemporary Arts Society Found Haunting and Significant,” The Standard, Montreal, November 30, 1940
Natalie Luckyj, Expressions of Will: The Art of Prudence Heward, Agnes Etherington Arts Centre, Queen’s University, Kingston, 1986, pages 49 and 122-23
A.K. Prakash, “Efa Prudence Heward (1896-1947) Un grand nom de l’expressionisme figurative” and “Efa Prudence Heward (1896-1947) Master of Representational Expressionism,” Magazinart, 15:3 (Spring, 2003) reproduced on cover and page 44 as “Italian Woman” c. 1930
Julia Skelly, Prudence Heward Life and Work [online publication], Art Canada Institute, Toronto, 2015 page 54, reproduced as “Italian Woman” c. 1930
Prudence Heward was one of Canada’s leading figure painters in the 1920s and 1930s. After initial studies in Montreal, she went on to study in Paris in 1925 and during the winter of 1928-29 and was the first recipient of the Governor-General’s Willingdon prize for her painting “Girl on a Hill” (a portrait of the dancer Louise McLea) in 1929. Heward’s portrait of fellow artist Mabel Lockerby was included in the exhibition of Canadian art at the British Empire Exhibition at Wembley in 1925 and her paintings were shown in most subsequent international exhibitions of Canadian art during her lifetime. From 1928 Heward was regularly invited to exhibit with the Group of Seven and she became a charter member of the Canadian Group of Painters in 1933, of the Contemporary Arts Society in 1939 and the Federation of Canadian Artists in 1941. The National Gallery of Canada organized a memorial exhibition of Heward’s paintings in 1948.

While not known to have participated in any exhibitions of the Beaver Hall Group, Prudence Heward was closely allied with the various artists through close friendships and shared aesthetic interests, including the use of variegated backgrounds to enhance their portraits. The convention among Montreal artists of posing subjects in front of a landscape, rather than neutral backgrounds, can be seen as early as 1920 or 1921 in Lilias Torrance Newton’s portrait of Heward’s sister “Nonnie” (National Gallery of Canada, acc. No. 1797). This practice would be transformed in Adrien Hébert’s “The Mouth Organ Player” of 1924 (National Gallery of Canada, acc. No. 37594) and Edwin Holgate’s “Lumberjack” also of 1924 (Sarnia Gallery Lambton, acc. No. 956.001.008), where the backgrounds play a narrative role in the definition of the subjects.

Figures were also posed in interiors evocative of the subject’s character, as seen in Emily Coonan’s portrait of Jeanne de Crèvecoeur, “Girl in Green” of 1913 (Art Gallery of Hamilton, acc. No. 56.56.S, gift of A.Y. Jackson) and her “Girl and Cat” of 1920 (National Gallery of Canada, acc. No. 46231), Randolph Hewton’s “Interior with Lady” of 1921 (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, acc. No. 1979.23) and Prudence Heward’s “Rosaire” of 1935 (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, acc. No. 944.859).

While Holgate used the composition of his small canvas “Fisherman’s Kitchen, Natashquan” of 1931 (Art Gallery of Hamilton, acc. No. 68.72.30) for the background of his seated nude, “Interior” of 1933 (Art Gallery of Ontario acc. No. 2155), Heward appears to be the sole Montreal artist to have consistently painted identifiable “plein-air” oil sketches to be incorporated into her portraits. Most of these landscape sketches were painted in the countryside around her family’s cottage at Fernbank near Brockville on the St. Lawrence River.

As exemplified by the outline drawing in charcoal of a woman on the back of the canvas of “Mrs. Decco”, Heward first drew and painted her figures and subsequently selected a sketch to fill the background. An oil sketch of a wicker chair by the foot of a staircase painted at Saint-Sauveur (sold at auction in November 2019) was utilized for her portrait of “Rosaire” and the oil sketch “Backyard on Sainte Famille Street” served as the basis for the exterior view in “Girl in the Window” of 1941 (both Art Gallery of Windsor, acc. Nos. 1981.007 and 1981.006). The latter canvas depicts the half figure of a black woman, wearing a skirt and sweater, the open sweater half revealing her breasts. She is resting her elbow on the window ledge and the facades of houses with exterior staircases fill the window frame.

“Mrs. Decco” of 1940 and “Girl in the Window” of 1941 are both posed within an urban setting. The background of “Girl in the Window” is an identified site, whereas Mrs. Decco, wrapped in her cloth coat and sheepskin collar, is set against a brick wall painted in pale blues, pinks, greens and oranges. (A similar background was used in her 1940 portrait of her brother R.W. Heward.) Both Mrs. Decco and the model for “Girl in the Window” appear to be working class women, depicted with great humanity and sympathy. Mrs. Decco is probably an imaginary name as no listings for that name appear in Lovell’s Montreal Street Directories for 1939-40 and 1940-41.

Prudence Heward’s portraits of the late 1920s and early 1930s are drawn with emphatic silhouettes and set in linear environments constructed of planes and flat surfaces. However in “Rosaire” of 1935 the brushwork became more textured, the colouring richer and more expressive. A similar mastery of brushwork and colouring characterizes Mrs. Decco, from the pale pinks and blues of the brick wall to the warm skin tones and curves of the yellow blouse. With masterful agility and delight in expressive brushwork, Heward painted the thick wool collar of the coat in swirls of yellows, blue-whites and black.

“Mrs. Decco” was included in the Contemporary Arts Society’s exhibition “Art of Our Day in Canada” in November 1940 together with her portrait “R.W. Heward”. “Mrs. Decco” attracted the attention of E.R. Hunter, then working for the Art Association of Montreal (now Montreal Museum of Fine Arts), and the noted critic Robert Ayre of the Montreal “Standard”. It was the very humanity of the sitter that struck Ayre as it does the viewer today. Her somewhat melancholic mien and suppressed emotion characterize most of Heward’s subjects, whether family members or models. They are withdrawn, restrained, watching and introspective. Prudence Heward’s portraits are powerful expressions of her commitment to other human beings and her search for meaning and order in a world in the midst of social and economic crisis.

We extend our thanks to Charles Hill, Canadian art historian, former Curator of Canadian Art with the National Gallery of Canada and author of “The Group of Seven – Art for a Nation”, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Efa Prudence Heward
(1896 - 1947) Beaver Hall Group, Canadian Group of Painters

Born in Montreal. Quebec, she became interested in art early in her life. She attended classes at the Art Association of Montreal under William Brymner with fellow students, Edwin Holgate, Sarah Robertson, Anne Savage, Kathleen Morris, Lilias Torrance Newton and Emily Coonan. Miss Heward also worked for two summers under Maurice Cullen, sketching at Phillipsburg and Carillon. During the First World War, she and her mother worked with the Red Cross in London, England (her brothers also served overseas with the army). Following the war she continued her studies in Montreal under Randolph Hewton who, as A.Y. Jackson related, “...did much to increase her interest in understanding of the modern school.” She then studied in Paris at the Academie Colarossi and returned to Montreal where in 1920 she joined a group of artists who had secured rooms on Beaver Hall Hill.

Norah McCullough explains this activity of the group as follows, “The idea was to maintain club rooms for other artists where they might meet and hold exhibitions. A small room downstairs served this purpose while back rooms and those upstairs became studios for a succession of artists. All those associated with the Beaver Hall Hill Group had been William Brymner's students at the School of Fine Art Association of Montreal, that is to say, very well trained indeed by the brilliant teacher.” The Group included Nora Collyer, Emily Coonan, Mabel Lockerby, H. Mabel May, Kathleen Morris, Lilias Torrence Newton, Sarah Robertson, Anne Savage and Ethel Seath. Prudence Heward specialized mainly in the field of figure and portrait painting. After a few years, the Group dissolved because it proves impracticable financially, but all of the artists went on alone to develop into painters of distinction. Miss Heward won first prize for her “Girl on a Hill” at the Willingdon Arts Competition in 1929. This was a study of Louise McLea, a Montreal dancer.

Most of her painting was done at the Heward house on Peel street in Montreal whee her young nieces posed for many of her studies. In the late summer of each year Prudence Heward would go sketching with Sarah Robertson, A.Y. Jackson, the Heward family and others at the Heward's summer home near Brockville, Ontario, on the St. Lawrence. She was a great admirer of the work of Cezanne, Renoir, Matisse, Derian, Picasso, Modigliani and Francis Hodgkins. She owned two of Hodgkins' canvases, and her work reflected the influences of all of these artists.

In 1930, her three-quarter length portrait “Rollande” attracted much attention at the Fifth annual exhibition of Canadian art at the National Gallery of Canada and was acquired by the Gallery in the same year.

In 1932 an exhibition of her work was held at the galleries of W.W. Scott and Sons, Drummond Street, Montreal. The showing included her portraits, landscapes, and plant studies. “The Gazette” noted the following, “The exhibition, which contains both portraits and landscapes, is marked by brilliant colour, strong modelling and interesting rhythmic composition. Miss Heward in her portraits never allows the setting to become just the background, but it is always an integral part of the picture. As a result, her canvases are pervaded with unity of form, feeling, colour and these.” The same year her “Three Sisters” and “Nude under a Tree” were reproduced in the “Bridle and Golfer.” The “Nude under a Tree” was considered to be one of the finest nudes in Canada at that time, although it was also a controversial work.

She exhibited at W.W. Scott and Sons in 1934 with Sarah Robertson and Isobel McLaughlin where their work was well received. Arthur Lismer in “The Montreal Star” noted, “Her landscapes avoid anything in the way of pretty textures or pictorial detail. They are concerned more with the structure and movement of the earth and forms, rather than with representations of the likeness of the scene.”

She became a member of the Canadian Group of Painters (1933) and the Contemporary Arts Society (1939); she travelled to Bermuda where she sketched with Isabel McLaughlin, also with her at Saint-Sauveur, Quebec, and Whitefish near Manitoulin Island. There she produced studies of Indigenous Peoples. Failing health caused her to move to Los Angeles, California, where she passed away in 1947.

A memorial exhibition of 101 of her works was organized and presented by The National Gallery of Canada in 1948. After being shown at the Gallery in Ottawa, it went on tour to public galleries throughout Canada. H.O. McCurry (then Director of the NGC) in the foreword of the catalogue wrote, “Prudence Heward was a figure painter of unusual distinction at a time when the emphasis among Canadian artists was almost exclusively on landscape. At the National Gallery she is held in high esteem not only for what she accomplished, but also for the regard in which she has always been held by her fellow artists, among them A.Y. Jackson who has written the introduction to this catalogue.”

Her works are part of the collections of the Art Association of Montreal; The Art Gallery of Ontario; Hart House, University of Toronto; The National Gallery of Canda which received 22 of her paintings after her death as a gift from her mother Mrs. A.R.G. Heward. The Continental Galleries, Montreal, held an exhibition of her paintings in the autumn of 1964.

Source: "A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, Volume I: A-F", compiled by Colin S. MacDonald, Canadian Paperbacks Publishing Ltd, Ottawa, 1977