A Turn of the Century Toronto Artist

Just the other day I overheard comments by two ladies in the Group of Seven section of the Art Gallery of Ontario. One said to the other: "I donít know - itís all so masculine - those bold colors and heavy sweeping lines". As chance would have it, I had the opportunity to compare the work of these masculine Toronto painters to that of a supremely feminine Toronto artist of the previous generation - Mary Hiester Reid.

If you step out of the Group of Seven rooms into the adjoining "Salon" display you can see a variety of Canadian works from the 19th century displayed higgledy-piggledy upon the walls, in emulation of the way works for sale were actually shown in the 19th centuryís Salons. Among the very traditional pieces on display (Canada was not a hotbed of modernism in the arts then) you may see the works of Mary Hiester Reid and her husband George A Reid. Downstairs, until February 4, 2001, there is a special exhibition of Maryís paintings titled "Quiet Harmony: The Art of Mary Hiester Reid".

Mary Hiester Reid was very well known in turn of the century Toronto for her paintings of flowers. In the cramped Victorian world view, flowers were one of the few spheres of painting deemed suitable for women, but within this sphere M. H. Reid was acknowledged supreme in Canada. The critics of the time seem to have ignored her rather larger output of landscapes, although to my non-critical eye they seem just as talented as the floral portraits. Nonetheless, what better subject for a Hort Millennial review (as you know, the true 3rd Millennium, as opposed to the odometer-oriented one, arrives January 1 2001) than a Toronto artist best known for her paintings of flowers and gardens? To quote from the exhibitionís notes:

"...Reid was best known and most enthusiastically praised as a painter of flowers. Reviewers particularly admired her ability to combine botanical accuracy with qualities suggestive of spiritual truths about beauty, transience, delicacy, and human sentiment."

Mary Hiester was born in Pennsylvania in 1854 and studied art at the School of Design and the Pennsylvania Academy of Fine Arts in Philadelphia. It was there she met George Reid, a Wingham-born Canadian. After their marriage they settled in Toronto. Several of Maryís later paintings show the home they built in the new rural suburb of Wychwood Park. One of these, Morning Sunshine (1913) shows a room in their Wychwood house with a vase of flowers on the table and a pleasant display of 5 or 6 potted plants in the sunny window. An almost palpable sense of peace and quiet is conveyed. Do we have any members who live near Wychwood? Can one of them locate the Reidís house today? Does it still stand?

I think my favorite among those of her floral works on display was "A Harmony in Grey and Yellow" (1897). This work is one of several still lives of roses which show some of the main aesthetic influences on Maryís work. Although Mary had studied in Paris and was certainly aware of Impressionism, she was more influenced by the precepts of Tonalism, which "emphasized a dreamy moodiness through the harmonious diffusion of light,[...] the softening of outlines, and the resulting unity of effect" (this and other quotes from the exhibition catalogue by Brian Foss and Janice Anderson). The Reids were also admirers of the works and theories of James McNeill Whistler. Many of Reidís works show in their titles and palettes a sensitivity to the role of muted, greyed colours and an emphasis on a creating a harmonious wholeness through subtle colouring.

Aestheticism was promoted in America by a controversial tour by Oscar Wilde in 1882. Wilde and Whistler both loved Oriental art, and Reid often used Chinese vases or Japanese arrangements in her floral still lifes. Chrysanthemums (1891) is an example in the show which caught my eye, both for the art of the painting itself and the art of the arrangement.

The show also contains several of Reidís pictures of gardens. Mary and George Reid were well acquainted with the American artist Candace Wheeler. Wheeler, an associate of Tiffany and other designers, had founded a summer colony in Onteora, New York. The Reids spent most summers there and it seems likely some of the paintings of gardens in the exhibition would have been done in Onteora. Although I could find no record of Mary Hiester Reidís own gardens nor anything written about them, Candace Wheeler wrote a series of articles about her own garden in Onteora which appeared 100 years ago in the Atlantic Monthly (June-August 1900). Wheeler was a strong and interesting personage in her own right who championed the use of Indian corn as a new national emblem for the U.S., an emblem she identified with female nurture as opposed to martial prowess. Here is a part of Wheelerís article, Content in a Garden:

"When I inclosed my garden, I meant that the wall should be broad enough to grow weeds and grasses and blossoming stonecrop on its top. I planted wild clematis along its outside border, and inside, the sweet striped-honeysuckle. Twice in the summer the irregular wall is a mound of blossom and sweetness, for I have so planted my garden that the flowers come in procession...To make this summer procession a perfect one, I have taken care that while one kind of flower is passing, it shall occupy all the garden with an unbroken sheet of bloom. Thousands of flowers of one variety, lifting their faces to the sun in the morning, or standing on dress-parade through the afternoon, make an impression upon the eye and the imagination which is impossible to mixed masses, however beautiful their separate parts. [...] Flowers in masses give fragrance in masses, and if we would have our enjoyment whole, instead of broken into bits, we must plant and sow with unstinted liberality."

Mary was active in a number of Toronto clubs; I wonder if any of our readers can discover if she was a member of the Toronto Horticultural Society? Perhaps Pleasance Crawford might know... Both Mary Hiester Reid and Candace Wheeler were strong women who pushed the limits of their Victorian roles in life, but they did not break out of some of the stereotypes that era taught them were true. Listen to Candace Wheeler speaking of her garden:

"...it is curious that when I speculate upon [..] my flowers, I think of them as girl children, and merry or stately maids, or sweet and loving matrons, -- never as men; and I unconsciously find an explanation of the mysterious temperamental differences between men and women in their animal and vegetable preembodiments. The cool silence of the earth from which the plant grows and the tree lifts itself is in womanís more quiet nature, and the fierce ravage of animal instinct in manís "

Although they sound strange and dated now, these sentiments would have been viewed quite differently in Mary Reidís time. In 1922, the year after her death, Mary Reidís art was celebrated in a retrospective. C.W. Jefferys wrote then:

"in the short list of those who have shed light upon the path and given direction to the early steps of Canadian Art, the name of Mrs. Reid will always have a prominent place. She is one of that little band of pioneers [...] who brought into the rough places and the hard conditions of backwoods life the graces, the gentle fortitude, and the inspiration that are womanís peculiar contributions toward civilization. I emphasize her position as a woman painter [...] because her work seems to me to possess in a superlative degree those qualities which we commonly regard as being essentially womanly. Her art stands fairly on its own purely aesthetic merits of power and distinction, but I think that its particular value to Canadian art will be found to consist in that spirit of femininity, of maternity, of womanly strength and tenderness which pervades all that she has done, and which at this stage of our progress is especially necessary for a fully rounded and complete expression of human life in art. Masculinity in a young country can always be counted upon; the "strong" man is never lacking: Nature looks after that. The masculine silhouette bulks large on the frontier, but beside it, on every horizon, there moves the womanly figure..."

But times were changing. In 1916 one critic attending an exhibition

"turned Ďwith a sense of exquisite peaceí from the Ďexplosionsí that were J.E.H. MacDonaldís paintings to the revelation of Ďa very gentle and beautiful soulí in Reidís art." (B. Foss)

J.E.H. MacDonald in fact contributed a design to the memorial catalogue of the 1922 exhibition; the Reidís had always been supportive of younger artists and were remembered fondly by them. Nonetheless, by 1943 Mary Hiester Reidís name had disappeared from a survey of Canadian art and the vigorous, "masculine" styles of the Group of Seven had pushed out much of their predecessorsí works from the publicís limited memory.

So let me return to the overheard comments of the two ladies. Is there such a thing as a "feminine" style of art and a "masculine" one? Or do our own preconceptions of what is properly feminine and masculine push and pigeonhole artists into gender ghettos?

Itís an interesting question from the point of view of a gardener. Part of gardening is craft - knowledge of plants, habitats, construction techniques: botany and bricks - but an equally large if not larger part is design and artistic vision. So, is the artistic part of gardening a "feminine" art? Certainly when one attends Horticultural Society meetings one would argue that, by the numbers, it is. Yet I believe this is as much a kind of social inertia as anything else. Although things are changing, boys are still often raised to believe the proper pursuits of men are cars, sports, and crafts based on mechanical skills, while an awareness of colour harmonization or flower arrangement is not viewed as "manly". Even the pejorative labeling of gay men as "pansies" speaks to how strongly our society still seeks to characterize the gentler arts of gardening as not masculine. If we accept this unstated but prevalent macho bias, men in the garden will confine themselves to pruning, lawn mowing, and leaf raking. This doesnít describe my favorite garden tasks!

I venture instead to hope that the passage of 100 years has begun, however slowly, to dissolve the strict boundaries between men and women in the garden. Indeed, I believe that no matter which of the five sexes you belong to, an appreciation of the gardening arts "is especially necessary for a fully rounded and complete expression of human life in art".

***

If you canít make it to the AGO but you have Internet access, you can see some of Mary and George Reidís paintings at the National Gallery of Canadaís "Cybermuse" site. Look under George Reid for "Portrait of Mary Hiester Reid" (1885) to see her as her husband saw her when they were newlyweds. Look under Mary Hiester Reid to see four of her works, including Morning Sunshine, Chrysanthemums, and a Rose Harmony work.

The Metropolitan Museum of Art of New York will mount an exhibition about Candace Wheeler in 2001. Until then, you can find a fair bit about her on the Web. Facsimile versions of the Atlantic Monthly from 1900 containing her articles can be found at the Cornell University Libraryís "Making of America" site. Use the search feature to find "Candace Wheeler".

 

 

 

 

 

 

 

Copyright 2001 by Clement Kent, c l e m e n t @ g o d e l . n e t

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