Artwork by Emily Carr,  Kitwancool, circa 1928

Emily Carr
Kitwancool, circa 1928

oil on canvas
signed lower right; inscribed “Kispiax” on the reverse
44 x 26.75 ins ( 111.8 x 67.9 cms )

Auction Estimate: $1,500,000.00$1,000,000.00 - $1,500,000.00

Price Realized $1,920,000.00
Sale date: June 8th 2023

The Artist
Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Glen Frankfurter Collection, 1945
First City Trust, 1987
Christopher Varley, Toronto
Acquired by the present Private Collection, May 1991
“Emily Carr: Paintings and Watercolours”, Dominion Gallery, Montreal, 19 October‒4 November 1944, no. 6
“Emily Carr Retrospective Exhibition”, Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal, 2002, no. 18
“Max Stern”, Concordia University/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2004, no. 49
“Pop Up Museum”, Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum, 9 August 2017
Marius Barbeau, “Totem Poles of the Gitskan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia”, Ottawa, 1929, page 108‒109, 118, poles photographed on page 257
Emily Carr, “Klee Wyck”, Toronto, 1941, 2003 edition, pages 138, 142‒143
“MagazinArt, 12:1” (Fall 1999), reproduced page 138
“MagazinArt, 15:1” (Fall 2002), reproduced page 47
“Emily Carr Retrospective Exhibition”, Walter Klinkhoff Gallery, Montreal, 2002, no. 18, reproduced page 8
“Max Stern”, Concordia University/Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, 2004, no. 49, reproduced page 7
Emily Carr’s work was introduced to the Canadian art world when the anthropologist Marius Barbeau included her paintings in the monumental exhibition, Canadian West Coast Art: Native and Modern, held at the National Gallery of Canada in 1927. The exhibition included an important group of Carr’s 1912 paintings of First Nations totems and villages painted using the knowledge that she had gained during her training in France. This body of work was warmly received by other artists, most notably for Carr, Lawren Harris and other members of the Group of Seven. After years of her work being little appreciated in her home province, Carr was encouraged and resolved to return to painting with a new conviction.

On her 1912 trip to Northern British Columbia to paint Indigenous subjects, Carr was unable to visit the village of Gitanyow, or Kitwancool, renowned for the totem poles there, because the Gitsxan elders had little time for outsiders in their village. In 1928, however, Carr was able to secure passage to the village and produced a fine body of work from this visit.

Carr’s trip to Kitwancool (now Gitanyow), the Gitxsan village on the Kitwanga River, a tributary of the larger Skeena River, is recounted in her story, Kitwancool, which appears in Klee Wyck, her Governor General’s Award-winning book of 1941. Carr writes, “the thought of those old Kitwancool poles pulled at me.” After a difficult wagon journey, Carr, upon her arrival, is asked by the elder Mrs. Douse why she had come to the village and replies, “I want to make some pictures of the totem poles...because they are beautiful.” Carr was able to remain in the village for six days, working intensively.

Several canvases were produced from studies done in Kitwancool when Carr returned to her studio in Victoria. There is a fine canvas, “Kitwancool”, 1928-30, (Glenbow Museum) but more interestingly, in relation to this canvas, there is a similar work, “Corner of Kitwancool Village” (McMichael Canadian Art Collection). Both canvases depict two poles in the village in some detail and show several other poles and longhouses in the background and a distant mountain.

We know from Marius Barbeau’s, “Totem Poles of the Gitskan, Upper Skeena River, British Columbia”, that the two poles belong to Malee (the one on the right of the image) and Weerhae (on the left). Barbeau describes the pole belonging to Malee as follows: “The figures on the third pole, the nearest to the river are: the Cormorant (Ha-o’ts) at the top and farther below; a Bear cub; and the ancestress Disappeared (Temdee-mawks), at the bottom.” The pole belonging to Weerhae: “The fourth pole, the most recent, also bears the name of Mountain-eagle or Thunder-bird (Skaimsem). It stands on the lower terrace, nearer to the river, and represents in simplified form the same mythic adventures and emblems: the Mountain-eagle, at the top; Tsiwiladaw, the mythic ancestress with a child in her arms; four of her chilred; and Large- nosed-person (Git’weedzarat).” In both the present canvas and the McMichael version, the top of the pole, the Mountain-eagle, is unseen: only the Tsiwiladaw with her child; a roughly indicated grouping of the children below this and then the figure of the Git’weedzarat (large- nosed-person) are depicted. Sadly, it is not possible to securely identify the other poles in either image, nor the longhouses behind. In both canvasses, strongly painted blue mountains rise above the village in the background. In “Kitwancool”, Carr has slightly shifted her viewpoint to the right, and the pole belonging to Weerhae, pushes against the left edge of the image. The change in viewpoint also means that we see another pole in distance and, more importantly, there is a greater immediacy to the image than in the McMichael version, because the pole of Malee is also brought closer to the picture plane.

Both works, were first shown in the exhibition “Emily Carr: Paintings and Watercolours” held at the Dominion Gallery, Montreal in 1944. “Kitwancool” was sold the following year, and “Corner of Kitwancool Village”, remained in the collection of Dr. Max Stern, the Dominion Gallery owner, until he gave it to the McMichael in 1977. While it is perhaps unusual to have two compositions so closely related, a strong case can be made that “Kitwancool”, the more dynamic work, is the later of the two paintings. It is more challenging compositionally, with a vigourously delineated fore and mid-ground, and Carr has eliminated a small structure behind the pole at the left (seen in the McMichael canvas) clarifying the composition to great effect. The sky in “Kitwancool” is also more active, than in the earlier canvas.

Carr wrote of the village of Kitwancool: “The sun enriched the old poles grandly. They were carved elaborately and with great sincerity. Several times the figure of a woman that held a child was represented.” This mother figure appears, notably, in the pole of Weerhae, on the left, and, perhaps most famously in, “Totem Mother, Kitwancool”, 1928 (Vancouver Art Gallery).

What is most striking about “Kitwancool” is how vividly Carr has captured the beauty of these majestic poles, proud sentinels of the Gitxsan nation, Kitwancool (Gitanyow) and the families of Weerhae and Malee. The poles are indeed “enriched” by the sunlight which streams in from the left and Carr has conveyed their sincerity and power.

We extend our thanks to curator and art historian, Ian Thom, for his assistance in researching this artwork and for contributing the preceding essay.

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Emily Carr
(1871 - 1945) Canadian Group of Painters

Born in Victoria, B.C. She was educated there until she was 16. Her parents died before she was 14 and her eldest sister managed the home. Rebellious against her sister's authority she persuaded the family guardian to allow her the study art in San Francisco. About 1888 she went to the San Francisco School of Art and returned to Victoria about 1895 where she set up a studio in a renovated barn behind her home. There she painted and taught art. In 1897 she travelled to Ucluelet on Vancouver Island, with a missionary friend, where she sketched an Indian village for the first time, but not consciously seeking Indigenous motifs. In her autobiography she wrote, " paint the Western forest did not occur to me...I nibbled at silhouetted edges...Unknowingly I was working ideas against the time when I should be ready to use material."

In Victoria, she had saved enough money through teaching to study in England at the Westminister School of Art, and landscape under Julius Olsson at St. Ives, and landscape under John Whitely at the Meadows Studio, Bushey. Visiting London she took ill and spent 18 months convalescing a the East Anglia Sanatorium which prompted her book "Pause". She returned to Victoria in 1904 and was invited to Vancouver to supervise classes of the Ladies' Art Club of Vancouver. Too serious in her teaching and too unsophisticated for the members' liking, Emily was dismissed after a month. She conducted classes for children in Vancouver which were successful. This brought the Ladies' Art Club President to suggest amalgamation of the two groups, but Emily, understandably, refused. That summer she took a pleasure trip to Alaska with her sister and while she was sketching in Sitka, an American artist seeing her work encouraged her to pursue the Indigenous motif in her own style.

It was after this trip that she decided to paint totem poles in their natural settings. Each summer she returned to the Northern coast of B.C. And did many canvases during that five year period (c. 1905-1910). In 1910 having saved enough money to go abroad, she studied in France at the Colorossi where criticisms were given only in French; finding this too difficult to follow she changed to another studio but took ill and travelled to Sweden for a rest. Returning to France a few months later she studied under Harry Gibb both at Cressey-en-Bri and at Brittany. Gibb encouraged individuality and originality in her work and two of her canvases were hung in the Salon d'Automne. Her work gained brightness characteristic of the Fauves which Gibb himself followed. She studied briefly under an "Australian" woman water colourist at Concarneau, later thought to be New Zealand artist Frances Hodgkins by D.W. Buchanan.

She returned to Victoria and to Vancouver in 1912 where she held an exhibition of her French paintings. They were rejected by everyone. Her new style lost her teaching opportunities but her spirit at this point was not broken for she wrote, "In spite of all the insult and scorn shown to my new work I was not ashamed of had brighter, cleaner colour, simpler form, more intensity."

With so few pupils she spent more time painting large canvases from her earlier Indigenous village sketches. Finally in 1913 with no pupils, no market for her work, she was forced to return to Victoria. She built an apartment house (The House of All Sorts) from family land and borrowed money. She took in roomers but was not able to make ends meet. In that period she raised 350 Old English Bobtail Sheep-dogs and with her own crude kiln in her back yard made pottery, sometimes in batches of 500 pieces which she decorated with Indigenous designs. These were very much sought after by tourists. She wrote, "...I ornamented my pottery with Indian designs- that was why the tourists bought it...Because my stuff sold, other potters followed my lead and, knowing nothing of Indian Art, falsified it. This made me very angry. I loved handling the smooth clay. I loved the beautiful Indian designs, but I was happy about using Indian design on material for which it was not intended..."

Running a rooming house, raising dogs, and making pottery kept Emily from painting for about 15 years. It was not until Marius Barbeau in 1921 learned of her work from his Indigenous interpreter and brought it to the attention of Eric Brown, National Gallery of Canada Director, (although Mortimer Lamb had also shown interest in her work) that she became known to the rest of Canada. It was Brown who told her of the Group of Seven and F. B. Housser's book "Canadian Art Movement" which she bought and read from cover to cover. She loaned 50 of her paintings for the West Coast Indian Art exhibit organized by the National Gallery in 1927 and her work was well received. Travelling East for the opening, she visited A.Y. Jackson, J.E.H. MacDonald, and Lawren Harris in Toronto hanving read of their work in Housser's book. Heading West after the opening, she stopped at Toronto again to see Lawren Harris who became the inspiration and motivation in her development as a painter.

A change of style soon followed her visit East, notably with the canvas "Blunden Harbour" which Dr. Hubbard considers her most monumental of this period. Although Harris influenced her, he never tried to mould her; he encourages her individuality and eventually prompted her to seek liberation from the dominant Indigenous motif in her work. She turned to the forests of B.C. Using oil-on-paper in a powerful spiral like style described by Dr. Hubbard as an expression of "immense fertility of the earth and the irresistible force of nature.” Emily Carr travelled East several times as an invited contributor to the Group of Seven shows and on one occasion visited New York where she viewed works of American artists. By 1943 however, William Colgate notes in his book, "Her recent characterized by an eccentricity of design and a cloudiness of colour which stand in marked contrast to her earlier work...Whatever the cause, her painting has indubitably suffered because of it." Eleven years later, on reviewing her water colour work, Paul Duval wrote, "She did not hesitate to use whatever means necessary to attain her desired end. Some passages in her painting have a scrubbed look, others are delicately washed in, and there are frequent moments when her brush slashed the appear with the marks of a lash. System or non, Emily Carr registered souvenirs of her love of the Pacific Coast which are as affecting as any created in Canada."

Emily Carr sold her apartment home in 1936 and turned to full time painting and writing. Through a friend, Ira Dilworth learned of her work and became her literary executive. He had her stories read over the BCB at Vancouver and later took her manuscripts to the Oxford University Press in Toronto. "Klee Wyck" was published in 1941 and won the Governor General's award for the best non-fiction of that year; others followed: "The Book of Small", "The House of All Sorts", "Growing Pains", "The Heart of A Peacock", "Pause-A Sketch Book". Her paintings are in the collections of the the following galleries: Art Association of Montreal, Art Gallery of Ontario, Hart House, University of Toronto, Vancouver Art Gallery, The Lord Beaverbrook Collection, and the National Gallery of Canada in addition to many private collections.

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