Artwork by Laura Adeline Lyall Muntz,  A Little Girl

Laura Muntz Lyall
A Little Girl

oil on canvas
signed and dated 1905 lower right
45 x 30.25 ins ( 114.3 x 76.8 cms )

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

Price Realized $43,200.00
Sale date: December 1st 2022

The Artist
Ellen Regan McCluskey, Long Island, New York & Palm Beach, Florida
By descent to a Private Collection, Palm Beach, Florida
Private Collection, Massachusetts
“Eightieth Annual Exhibition”, National Academy of Design, New York, 2-30 January 1905, no. 259 as “A Little Girl”
The warmth and naturalness of the subject in Laura Muntz Lyall's “A Little Girl” makes it a picture at which we can look and look again. A little girl with tousled golden hair gives the viewer a steadfast stare, hand held to mouth in a childish gesture, absorbed in thought. Her other hand clutches a red garment she wears off her shoulders. In front of her, a kitten looks at us with an equally oblique stare, alert. Light falls on the girl's face and body, and on the wall behind her, on the basket next to her which reflects the red dress, and on the kitten. It's a startlingly vivid tour-de-force of observation: the child's intense look, the hand held to mouth, the hand that clutches, the reflection of the skirt in the brass basket, the staring kitten, the light on the face of the child.

Lyall left Toronto and went to New York in March 1904 for a visit. At the time and later, Lyall was considered a trailblazer for women artists in Canada. She had shown at the Paris Salon, the mark of an artist's reputation of the day. She was concerned with the modern world and interested in psychology. She drew on naturalism and combined it with Impressionism in her work. She was versatile in her choice of subject matter and acknowledged as the “incomparable” painter of children's portraits. Ambitious for contacts and places to exhibit and sell her work, since her means were modest.

In Canada, Lyall was respected as a stalwart of the Royal Canadian Academy, the Art Association of Montreal and many other societies and groups, but she had begun to reach out to new places to exhibit in the United States. In 1901, she had shown her work at the Pan-American Exposition in Buffalo and in 1903, at the Rochester Art Club. In 1903, she showed work in New York at the Water Colour Club. In 1904 in April, after she arrived in the city, she showed her work at the “Annual Exhibition of the Society of American Artists”, in Chicago at the Art Institute's “Annual Exhibition of Watercolors by American Artists” and in St. Louis at the “Canadian Exhibition at the World's Fair Louisiana Purchase Exposition”, where she won a prestigious bronze medal. She returned to Canada in the summer.

She sent “A Little Girl” to New York to the National Academy of Design exhibition in January 1905. The academy was known to exhibit artists established on the American scene, but some artists had found it too conservative and left to be included in an informal group that came in time to be called the Ashcan School and advocated painting urban scenes. Members of this group (Robert Henri, William Glackens, George Luks, John Sloan, Arthur B. Davies and Maurice Prendergast) had a show at the National Arts Club in January 1904. In 1908, an enlarged group had a landmark show at the Macbeth Galleries in New York.

When Lyall returned to Toronto, any knowledge she had of the up- and-coming art scene in New York would have made her want to assert something individual on her part. She decided to concoct a portrait not of a city child, but more of a country girl, with a setting to indicate, not city, but country life. She dressed “A Little Girl” in clothes that while not rags, are not new, and certainly are not city dress-up clothes. She even made the kitten, which she had painted before, as a beloved pet in a 1903 portrait of an older child titled Kitty, add to the effect. Now she made it into a watchful kitten that might live in a barnyard, to keep down the mice. But Lyall was not heavy-handed. Her picture is subtle, all hints and suppositions which feed the viewer's imagination.

Lyall's response to the challenge posed by showing a major work in New York proved to be a happy one. “A Little Girl” expressed her subject's combination of innocence and reserve and even pointed to the kind of girl Lyall portrayed, with unusual distinction. The painting not only charms but is a masterpiece that reveals her lifelong engagement with light and colour and of course, her subject – childhood, rarely so engagingly treated in her work as here. “A Little Girl” is one of the greatest works in a long career which shows her outstanding skill, creativity and technical prowess.

Lyall might have judged that in the context of American art of the time, her work would have success – and it did. Lyall sold it to Ellen Regan McCluskey of L.I., New York and Palm Beach, Florida and it remained in the family, a treasured possession, until recently.

We extend our thanks to Joan Murray, Canadian art historian, for contributing the preceding essay.

Share this item with your friends

Laura Adeline Lyall Muntz
(1860 - 1930) OSA, ARCA

Born at Radford, Warwickshire, England, the daughter of Eugene Gustavus Muntz, she came to Canada as a child with her family and they settled on a farm in the backwoods of the Muskoka District. She didn't begin formal art training until the age of twenty-three. She became a school teacher in Hamilton, Ontario, and in her spare hours took art classes.

With money saved from her teaching job she studies for a short time at the South Kensington School of Art, England about 1887. She returned to Canada and spent the next seven years earning money for study in Paris. In Paris, she studied at the Academie Colorossi under Joseph Le Blanc and others and she received Honourable Mention at the Paris Salon in 1895. She also travelled in Holland and Italy and at the end of seven years returned to Toronto and opened a studio. She was elected an Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy in 1895. She left Toronto and resided in Montreal where she continued to paint. Her canvas “A Daffodil” (a portrait of a girl holding a daffodil) was purchased by the National Gallery of Canada in 1910.

In 1915 she married Charles WB Lyall and returned to Toronto. She began signing her canvases Laura Muntz Lyall and even applied her signature to works she had done earlier so that each signature appeared on the canvas in opposite corners. For a period, her married life occupied most of her time and her painting activities almost ceased. Mention of her return to painting was recorded in the Toronto “Sunday World” by Irene Hare as follows, “Miss Lyall was one of our most indefatigable painters before the urge of other domestic duties took so much of her time that her painting was, to a certain extent, neglected. But her great number of admirers are delighted that she has again taken up her brush in earnest, and is very busy indeed at her 'attic' studio at her home. She has three large and very lovely pictures in process. All have little ones for their subject. One is s two beautiful children gambolling in a wood. The figures seem to melt in a hazy atmosphere of bronze and green at the same time imaginative and compelling. Two other small nude figures are disporting themselves along the sea-shore, in a glow of light and colour, the soft blues of the back-ground being particularly suitable for the fairy-like forms. In another still, the mother forms the keynote of the picture, with three beautiful child figures grouped about her....She is an enthusiastic painter. 'My hobbies' she will laughingly say, 'are only two-- painting and children. I don't know which I am fondest of.'”

She passed away in Toronto at the age of 70 and was survived by her husband, and a brother GH Muntz. It is not certain is there were other relatives. She is represented in the following collections: Art Gallery of Ontario; Parliament Buildings, Victoria, BC; Vancouver Art Gallery; National Gallery of Canada, and elsewhere including many private collections.

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