Artwork by Emily Carr,  Nirvana

Emily Carr

oil on paper, mounted on canvas
35.25 x 20.25 ins ( 89.5 x 51.4 cms )

Auction Estimate: $350,000.00$250,000.00 - $350,000.00

Price Realized $744,000.00
Sale date: December 6th 2023

Collection of the Artist
Major Holmes, Victoria, B.C.
Cecily Thompson (daughter of Major Holmes), Victoria
Sotheby's Canada, auction, Toronto, 6 November 1991, lot 65 as “Totem Poles/Nirvana”
Private Collection
“The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest”, Columbus Museum of Art, Ohio; travelling to Burchfield‒Penney Art Center, Buffalo, 23 March 1997‒17 August 1997
“Emily Carr (1871‒1945) Retrospective Exhibition”, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, Montreal, 14‒18 September 2002, no. 15
“This Museum Lasts One Night, Pop Up Museum”, Canadian Friends of the Israel Museum, Toronto, 13 August 2019
Sotheby's Canada, “Important Canadian Art”, 6 November 1991, Toronto, unpaginated, reproduced; also reproduced on the back outside cover
“The Paintings of Charles Burchfield: North by Midwest”, Ohio, 1997, reproduced page 17
“Magazin’Art 12:1” (Fall 1999), reproduced page 135
“Etcetera”, 11 September 2002, reproduced page 13
“Emily Carr (1871‒1945) Retrospective Exhibition”, Galerie Walter Klinkhoff, Montreal, September 2002, no. 15, reproduced page 7
Emily Carr first became interested in depicting the totemic art of the Indigenous peoples of British Columbia’s Pacific coast during a trip to Alaska with her sister Alice in 1907. Carr was deeply moved by the poles that she saw on that journey and journeyed north in both 1908 and 1909 to depict them. She realized however that her training in London and San Francisco had not equipped her with the artistic tools to depict the poles in a way that pleased her. In her quest to gain the technique necessary to depict these poles to her satisfaction, she travelled to France in the fall of 1910 and spent much of 1911 training with three expatriate artists – John Duncan Fergusson, Harry Phelan Gibb and Frances Hodgkins. Each of these teachers encouraged Carr to paint in a manner influenced by the ideas of both the Impressionists and post‒Impressionists. Hodgkins was particularly important in freeing up Carr’s approach to the use of watercolour. In 1912, following her return to Canada from France, Carr again visited northern British Columbia and began a serious campaign to depict the poles she saw in a new, more modern manner. Key amongst her 1912 visits was time spent on Haida Gwaii (formerly the Queen Charlotte Islands) and the deserted village of Tanoo (now T’anuu). Carr produced several sketches on the spot and these en‒plein‒air sketches were used to produce more finished watercolours and canvases in her studio. She held a major exhibition of these works in Vancouver in 1913. Among them is a superb 1912 watercolour “Tanoo” (now in the McMichael Canadian Art Collection). The 1912 works and the exhibition itself were received less enthusiastically than Carr had hoped for but, in 1927, these paintings were shown in the “Exhibition of Canadian West Coast Art Native and Modern”, held at the National Gallery of Canada (and subsequently shown in Montreal and Toronto). This important exhibition introduced Carr to the larger Canadian art world and marked the beginning of her association with Lawren Harris and other members of the Group of Seven.

The enthusiasm that Harris (and others) expressed for Carr’s totemic work encouraged her to return to painting (which she had largely abandoned between 1913 and 1927) and, the following year, 1928, Carr returned to northern BC to paint the totems she so admired. Carr also re‒examined the work from 1912 and she revisited some of the watercolours and sketches as source‒material for canvases in the early thirties. One of the most notable examples is her use of “Cumshewa”, 1912 (National Gallery of Canada) as the source for “Big Raven,” 1931 (Vancouver Art Gallery). Carr also revisited Tanoo but unlike the pairing of the watercolour “Cumshewa” and the canvas, “Big Raven”, she employed oil on paper as an intermediary step between the watercolour and the final canvas, “Nirvana” (formerly in the collection of Charles Band, now in a private collection). Carr had begun using oil on paper as her primary sketching medium in the early 1930s (unfortunately most of these works are undated), and many but not all were conceived of as source material for canvases rather than works of art in themselves. The oil on paper sketch, “Nirvana”, circa 1930, is highly unusual within Carr’s oeuvre. Rather than working directly from the motif, she worked from the 1912 watercolour, “Tanoo”. This seems to be the only time in Carr’s career that she took this approach. Nirvana is also the only known example of an oil on paper with totemic subject matter. “Nirvana”, among Carr’s earliest oil on paper sketches, was done at the time of “Untitled” (Forest Interior, black, grey and white), circa 1930 (Vancouver Art Gallery), when Carr was exploring the role of oil on paper sketches in her work. This may explain both the unique subject matter and the fact that Nirvana is based, not on direct observation, but on the 1912 watercolour.

The exploration of this trilogy of depictions of the two T’anuu poles is fascinating. In the earliest depiction, the 1912 watercolour “Tanoo”, we see two Haida poles (both depicting ravens and eagles), rising from a sea of bushes, the poles set against a background of silhouetted trees. The two poles are placed in the middle distance, somewhat removed from the viewer. In the oil on paper, Nirvana, the setting of the poles has been radically altered. Here we see the right‒side pole brought up to the picture plane and the two poles are dramatically separated by the simplified tree‒forms which recall those seen in “Untitled” (Vancouver Art Gallery). The background is simplified into a curtain of brushstrokes which suggest but do not delineate a sky and forest. The oil paint, thinned with gasoline, has been quickly and decisively applied to the paper. There is a more substantial, volumetric quality to the image suggested by the more emphatic application of the paint. In the final canvas, “Nirvana”, circa 1930, Carr revisits the landscape setting, providing a much more descriptive background for the two poles. There is a village on a shoreline, backed by enormous trees. In the foreground, Carr has placed a swirling base of foliage from which the two poles rise. The placement of the poles within the composition has also shifted to the right. This allows her to introduce a shaft light into the middle ground of the work. Interestingly, the final canvas has rendered the poles as much less colourful, as if the poles were unpainted much as Carr was to do in “Big Raven”.

All three of Carr’s depictions of the T’anuu poles are wonderful examples of her work. The oil on paper “Nirvana” is a fascinating and rare example of Carr’s use of the technique in a study of a totemic subject. These varied compositions reveal how engaged Carr was with this subject and how varied her approach to depicting them was.

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