Brushing It in the Rough: Women, Art and Nineteenth Century Canada

“Morning Glory and Honeysuckle” Susanna Moodie Watercolour on card paper, circa 1869 ROM989.302.2 Gift of Mrs. Grace E. Moogk(Toronto, Ontario, August 13, 2013) – Continuing to highlight its strong Canadiana collection, the Royal Ontario Museum (ROM) presents Brushing It in the Rough: Women, Art & Nineteenth-century Canada. This intimate display showcases the pictorial responses of three nineteenth-century women – Anna Jameson, a traveler; Susanna Moodie, a settler; and Alice Killaly, a native-born resident – to their Canadian experiences. Each woman produced art within society’s parameters and their stories reveal the circumstances behind the use of their talents for financial gain. Augmenting the earlier works, the art of Ruth Abernethy provides a contemporary lens onto the role of women in settler society. The exhibit’s 23 works are displayed from Saturday, August 24, 2013 to February 2014 in the Wilson Canadian Heritage Exhibition Room of the Sigmund Samuel Gallery of Canada, located on Level 1 of the ROM’s Weston Family Wing.

Dr. Arlene Gehmacher, Curator of Canadian Paintings, Prints & Drawings in the ROM’s World Cultures department is the exhibition’s curator.  She says, “The exhibition’s title is a play on “Roughing it in the Bush,” the title of Susanna Moodie’s disparaging account of her early years in Upper Canada. The works featured in this exhibition were not executed in the backwoods, nor were they all done by brush. The spoonerism (wordplay) creates a metaphor for the challenges women encountered in nineteenth-century Canada, and, perhaps more significantly, their strategies in dealing with such difficulties through the production of art.

Anna Jameson (Irish, 1794 – 1860)

Already a respected author in England, Anna Jameson arrived in Toronto in December 1836 to join her husband, the Attorney General of Upper Canada. The season was bleak as“Voyage down Lake Huron, in a Canoe” Anna Jameson Proof etching, grey wash, heightened with gouache, and pen & ink ruled border, on gray wove paper, 1837-38 ROM960.176.10 Gift of Dr. Sigmund Samuel was the marriage and within a year, the union was finished. Prior to leaving Canada, Jameson journeyed as far north as Sault Ste. Marie, a bold act of independence and freedom. Writing and sketching as she travelled, Jameson’s travelogue memoir, Winter Studies and Summer Rambles in Canada was the result of her two-month voyage.

Anna Jameson produced more than 50 drawings of her Canadian experience and a number of the drawings were the basis for etchings, also executed by Jameson. These include the five on display in Brushing it in the Rough. While these were likely intended for her publication, ultimately no images were included. Jameson’s approach to her subjects ranges from observer to participant, occasionally inserting herself into the scene.  While Jameson’s desolate “Winter Journey from Niagara by Lake Ontario” may be interpreted as a metaphor for her own early despondency, then “Voyage Down Lake Huron in a Canoe” might reference her “escape”.

Susanna Moodie (English, 1803 – 1885)

Born of a middle class family, Susanna Moodie immigrated to Upper Canada in 1832 as the wife of a retired English army officer. First living in the backwoods, after eight years of farming their land, they moved to “civilization” upon her husband’s appointment as sheriff. The comparatively urban environment of Belleville allowed Moodie to focus on writing.  Eventually becoming a staple of Canadian literature, her “Roughing it in the Bush” (1852) recalled the harshness of her backwoods years.

Susanna Moodie apparently took up watercolour painting later in life and the 1860s were a time to develop her skills in the medium. Focused mainly on floral still lifes, she painted from life, also finding inspiration in botanical prints. It is unclear as to why Moodie took up painting floral images but it may have been an attempt to diminish memories of her early years of hardship. Ironically, while painting appears to have been originally a leisure activity for Moodie, it soon became economically necessary. Moodie sold her works to raise household money with her watercolours eventually commanding five dollars each.

             Alice Killaly (Canadian, 1836 – 1908)“Coming down is easier but more dangerous” No.3 from A Picnic to Montmorenci Alice Killaly . Chromolithograph in brush, crayon, and pen on wove paper,Printed by Roberts & Reinhold, Chromo- 1868 Lith Published by George EROM960x276.94. Desbarats, Ottawa., Montreal

Alice Killaly was born in London, Ontario but lived in a number of towns in Upper and Lower Canada. Given the quality of her signed watercolour landscapes, she likely had formal art education and it is thought that Cornelius Krieghoff may have been her teacher. Killaly’s first attempt, in 1868, at having her artistic talents formalized as part of a business venture was also her last as she moved to England shortly after marrying in 1870.

 Alice Killaly’s “A Picnic to Montmorenci” (1868) is a set of six chromolithographs recounting an outing to one of Quebec’s most beloved tourist attractions. The title is both realist and ironic. While picnics were enjoyed during the winter at Montmorency Falls, Killaly’s take on the subject is filled with humour. Two young people, the hapless “Buzbie” and the non-plussed “Miss Muffin” are seen engaging in the ritual of courting. At the time, advertisements touted the set as the “first of its kind” making the most of its Canadian subject, humour, artist (including Killaly’s gender), printer and publisher. The process behind chromolithography could, but need not, involve the artist.  While Killaly provided the original artwork, as she lived in Toronto and the set was printed in Montreal, it is unlikely that she reproduced the images on the lithographic plate.

 Ruth Abernethy (Canadian, 1960 -)

Ruth Abernethy (Canadian, 1960 – ) The Canadiana Collection - “Canadiana #1” 2005-2007 Laser-cut 18-gauge stainless steel, hand-carved spruce handle with red acrylic paint 2009.31.1© CARCC, 2013Sculptor Ruth Abernethy was born in Lindsay, Ontario, the descendant of a Scots immigrant. Her collection of “Canadiana” had been inspired by a rekindled awareness of her own family’s farming and logging roots in south central Ontario during the nineteenth century.  From its inception in 2005, Abernethy’s “Canadiana Collection” has been a work in progress, currently comprising 13 works, five of which are housed in the ROM’s permanent collection.

The “Canadiana” series is an exploration of settlement life through the tools, implements, and craftwork used to shape Canada. Each object broadly suggests the pioneers’ quest for “civilization,” while also pointedly addressing the role of women in building community. References to handiwork, such as tatting and lace patterns, typically seen as “female” transform items conventionally evocative of men’s labour – a hatchet, hammer, or cross-cut saw. In feminizing typically “male” implements, Abernethy reinserts the presence of women into the story of settlement. In combining national symbols with typically female work, she makes the case for the essential role of women in building community.