Emily Coonan and Montreal’s Beaver Hall Group

Emily Coonan, Girl in a Dotted Dress, about 1923

Emily Coonan, Girl in a Dotted Dress, about 1923

The Beaver Hall Group was the first Canadian artist association in which women played a central role. The group included wonderful painters such as Emily Coonan, Prudence Heward and Lilias Torrance-Newton. The Group of Seven’s A. Y. Jackson and Edwin Holgate were also prominent members. A major exhibition of the Beaver Hall Group, “The Colours of Jazz”, is currently showing at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts and there’s still time to catch it, running until the 31st of January. More than the Montreal counterpart to the Group of Seven, this explores the contribution of Montreal artists through the first half of the 20th century.

The show’s quite extensive… if overtly portrait centric…and includes some large figurative works by the astoundingly effective Prudence Heward – certainly one of Canada’s best painters of the era – and the wonderful portraits of Lilias Torrance-Newton.

Torrance-Newton, Prudence Heward

Torrance-Newton; Prudence Heward

I find that the most interesting of their number is the unassuming Emily Coonan. Unlike the other women in the group, Emily was from humble roots and a Roman Catholic to boot. Seems she was a bit of a loner. It’s her portraits of girls that stand out. Always understated, they feel as if she was just painting for herself. In fact she stopped exhibiting in 1930 although continuing to paint for the rest of her life. There’s an affinity for her subject, simply stated, deeply human, these girls seem to show some discomfort with formality, the idea of being painted – as though they would like to get back to their lives outside the paintings.


Emily Coonan, Girl in Green, 1913 (gift of A.Y. Jackson to the Art Gallery of Hamilton)

In 2014, Charlie Hill was retiring from his longstanding role as Curator of Canadian Art at the National Gallery. When asked if he could take but one painting with him, which would it be. It was not a Thomson, a Riopelle, nor a Colville but, “Well, I recently bought an absolutely fabulous Emily Coonan with a young girl and a cat in an interior that I would take, but I can’t.”

Emily Coonan, Girl and Cat, 1920

Emily Coonan, Girl and Cat, 1920

France and I are looking forward to the January 30th start to our Saturday winter workshops. Come join us for a wonderful season of painting. We’ve 6 themes and we could work in some lessons from Beaver Hall into a marvelous winter of painting! All the details are on my website: http://davidkearn.com/courses_e.htm

We hope to see you there!