Artwork by Emily Carr,  Two Totems
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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

Lot #5

Emily Carr
Two Totems

oil on board
artist estate stamp lower left
16.25 x 13.75 in ( 41.3 x 34.9 cm )

Auction Estimate: $200,000.00$150,000.00 - $200,000.00

Dominion Gallery, Montreal
Private Collection, Edmonton
From 1928 to 1930, Emily Carr set out on her final major painting excursions to the northern coastal and interior regions of British Columbia, revisiting many of the sites she had visited in 1912, during her first research trips. She went to the Nass and Skeena region, Haida Gwaii, Friendly Cove and Quatsino, where she produced numerous studies which would later be used as sources for her more developed studio paintings. These smaller works, produced in situ during this period, included watercolours, charcoal drawings on manila paper, numerous notebook sketches as well as rapidly completed "plein air" works on board, such as the small painting, "Two Totems", likely completed "in situ" at the village of Gitanyow.

At this time, Carr began to project her own sense of spirituality into her paintings of First Nations culture, inspired by what she saw as their inherent transcendental power and cultural significance. Through extensive journeys to Indigenous villages throughout the interior and coastal areas of British Columbia, Carr sought to portray the central and emanating cultural and spiritual forces of the subjects using distilled and reduced form. She also continued to maintain her fidelity to the original Indigenous sources, by accurately depicting the features of figures and imagery that comprised the totems, welcome figures, house posts and community houses.

By the late 1920s, Carr had fully internalized her French studies and her focus now was on reflecting the Indigenous sources without the embellishment of fragmented brushwork and heightened colour, as she highlighted her focus on the spiritual nature of Indigenous artistic and cultural expression. Studies from the site visits during these travels were later used as sources for many of the masterworks of her mature period, reflecting her practice of working up major canvasses from "in situ" sketches and drawings. This practice allowed her to create the familiar stylized large-scale easel works for which Carr became known in her later career. In this later work, figures in the village sites and landscapes appear less often, which reflected this new stylization and formal concern, as well as the changes that had occurred in many of the village sites since her earlier trips. Colonial incursions, including disease, forced dispossession and dislocation had resulted in the depopulation and dismantling of many village sites, an effect which had left many irrevocably changed.

The heightened or non-objective chroma, use of outlining and close- cropping focus of her modern training can be seen in the original sketches from this period. Here, Carr begins to emphasize the monumentality of the form. Key to the works of this period was Carr’s ability to depict the underlying formal structure within her subjects and to use their key features as unifying forces in her work.

Carr’s journey to the village of Gitanyow, or Kitwancool as Carr called it, a Gitxsan village located on a branch of the Skeena River, is documented in the story, "Kitwancool", from the Governor General Award-winning memoir and story collection, "Klee Wyck", published in 1941. The story depicts Carr’s struggle to access the Gitanyow community. Her encounters with the hereditary chief’s family, including the matriarch, Chief Miriam Douse Gamlakyeltqu, are emblematic in their revelation of Carr’s own assumptions and lack of awareness about the political activism of the Douse family. Responding to Mrs. Douse’s query about why she has come to the village, Carr explains that she wants to "make some pictures of the totem poles." When pressed further for her reasons for doing so, Carr responds: “The young people do not value the poles as the old ones did. By and by there will be no more poles. I want to make pictures of them, so that your young people as well as the white people will see how fine your totem poles used to be.” This ‘salvage paradigm’—the belief in a disappearing culture that must be conserved and documented by colonial forces—is neatly summarized in this statement. Despite this, Mrs. Douse, her husband, and family, welcomed Carr as a guest in their home during her time in Gitanyow, and Carr set about a project to archive her discoveries. Carr’s work from this visit also includes a watercolour portrait, titled "Mrs. Douse, The Chieftainess of Kitwancool" while the series of works that emerge from this time at Gitanyow depict with clarity the village’s many totems for which it was well- known.

"Two Totems" is part of a series of studies produced at Gitanyow. It is a confident work comprised of oil on board, very likely produced "en plein air" at the village site and a compelling painting in its own right. Carr employs denaturalized colour learned and refined since her time in Normandy; swaths of viridian green and ultramarine blue applied as washes efficiently reference the forest that is the backdrop to the scene. The composition is closely cropped, revealing only a small section of the two totems to highlight the detail and power of their individual characters. The totems are equally held in place compositionally by the house structure located behind them: mapped as negative space within an efficiently blocked-in composition, its surface of Payne’s grey and umber frames a cavernous door in deep black.

Carr has taken pains to depict the detail of the totem’s several human figures, outlined in black for later reference: in one pole, a mother and child figure, crowned with a frieze of other children, reflects a motif repeated in the Vancouver Art Gallery studio painting, "Totem Mother, Kitwancool", 1928. Reflecting on this moment in her story, Carr writes: “I sat in front of a totem mother and began to draw–so full of her strange, wild beauty that I did not notice the storm that was coming, till the totem poles went black, flashed vividly white and then went black again.” One can imagine that, ensconced in the family of her hosts, Carr may have been especially aware of the relations that are depicted here, when she notes: “The mothers expressed all womanhood–the big wooden hands holding the child were so full of tenderness, they had to be distorted enormously in order to contain it all. Womanhood was strong in Kitwancool. Perhaps, after all, Mrs. Douse might let me stay.”

"Two Totems" is among other similar smaller oil on panel works, including a further panel of similar scale, likely from the same village in 1928. Additional comparable works from this period include "Kitwanga Pole" (BC Archives), "Kitwancool", 1928 (Glenbow Museum) and "Totem Poles, Kitwancool Village", 1928. Several studies from this excursion were also later developed into large studio works.

We extend our thanks to Lisa Baldissera, Canadian art historian, Director of Griffin Art Projects and former chief curator at the Mendel Art Gallery in Saskatoon for contributing the preceding essay. Lisa is the author of the Art Canada Institute’s "Emily Carr: Life & Work", available at
Sale Date: May 30th 2024

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Cowley Abbott
326 Dundas St West
Toronto ON M5T 1G5
Ph. 1(416)479-9703

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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