Beaver Hall Group makes Canadian art history at MMFA

A new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts suggests we need to reconsider the importance of a group of Montreal painters working in the early 1920s.

New research shows group of Montreal artists modernized painting

A new exhibition at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts suggests we need to reconsider the importance of a group of Montreal painters working in the early 1920s.

Co-curator Brian Foss took CBC arts reporter Jeanette Kelly to see three paintings that show the style and importance of the painters in the Beaver Hall Group.

Immigrants by Prudence Heward

Prudence Heward (1896-1947) The Immigrants 1928 Oil on canvas 66 x 66 cm Toronto, private collection Photo Sean Weaver (Montreal Museum of Fine Arts)

This is a very protective painting about two women who are, clearly as the title suggests, about to start off on some big adventure. It's a very austere painting, very appropriate to theme. These are not women who are in a position of power. They're very nervous, leaving something they know.

"Up till recently, we had only known this painting by a black and white photograph. In person you realize the white in the background are clouds, the red is a funnel. So it's clear what we're seeing here is a ship, which really reinforces the title idea they're about to take a ship to a new land," Foss says.

Prudence Heward is a marvelous Quebec painter, regarded by many artists of the day as the foremost female painter in Quebec and certainly one of the very finest in Quebec period. She came from a prominent Westmount family so she had money. She was able to paint. She did not need to worry about earning a living.

"It's a big hairy deal to have this painting in the show. We didn't know where it was for a very, very long time. It hasn't been seen in public for 70 years so when we were alerted to its existence we were thrilled."

Nude in the Studio by Lilias Torrance Newton

Lilias Torrance Newton (1896-1980) Nude in the Studio 1933 Oil on canvas 203.2 x 91.5 cm Collection A. K. Prakash Estate of Lilias Torrance Newton © NGC Photo Thomas Moore

This is a spectacular life-sized female nude. She's in an aggressive pose with one hand above her chest and one hip thrust out. She's not very interested at all in the fact that she's being beheld by all these viewers. It's a very forceful way to present a nude.

"There are two striking things about this painting: one is that she has full pubic hair, which is something paintings never had, and that she's wearing high heeled lace up green sandals — and that is all she's wearing.  

"It was incredibly shocking at the time when it was shown at the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1933. It was considered so salacious and so disgusting that the gallery took it down from public view especially after it received many, many letters from visitors complaining that there was pornography on the walls of the gallery.

"The artist is Lilias Torrance Newton, a portraitist from Montreal. Most of her paintings are portraits of friends and official people that usually start at mid chest-level and go up. So this is a one-off for Newton and I think critics really had no idea what to do with it. Critics complained the green sandals and lipstick and I-don't-care-you're-looking-at-me attitude suggests she wasn't nude — she was naked and that was a different thing altogether."

Chinatown by Johnny Johnstone

BEA.0102 John Y. Johnstone 1887–1930 Chinatown, Montreal About 1915–20 Oil on wood 18.5 × 23.9 cm Vermont, private collection Photo Andy Duback

This is a gorgeous little painting so typical of Johnny Johnstone: a relatively small street scene, his forte.

"It's a close-up of a yellowish wall with a Chinese Canadian man wearing a bright, purple top and blue pant with a sort of blue beret slouching with his hands in his pocket looking at us in a rather quizzical way. In the background there's a completely obscure figure walking in a very enigmatic way towards the edge of a wall.

"It's got everything. The colours are wonderfully luscious, the yellow wall against the bright purple of his shirt sets off a beautiful harmonic zing that I love. The light is strong and clear. At the same time part of the painting is very obscure. It's impossible to tell you the figure walking in the background is. Should we be charmed by the picturesqueness of this or is it actually a threatening scene?

"Johnny Johnstone lived on Ontario Street in Montreal very close to Chinatown. He's the only one of the group to paint Chinatown. He's a very accomplished artist but something of a bad boy. There are rumours, unfounded but they may very well be true, that he was addicted to the opium dens that were still available then in Montreal's Chinatown. So this painting may have personal meaning for him. Certainly he led a more rough and tumble life than just about any other artist in the group.

"This painting is in a strange way modern Montreal although the subject seems very exotic. It offers the kind of surprise and excitement and unknowability of the modern city. Things can go wrong, there are unexpected turns at every corner. What he's playing with is a view of what many people would have seen at the time as a really unknown, possibly dangerous part of the modern city.  You can see it as the modern urban scene as an unpredictable, surprising thing."

These three paintings are part of Colours of Jazz: 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group is at the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts until Jan. 31, 2016.

You can listen to Brian Foss in conversation with Jeanette Kelly Saturday on Cinq à six on CBC Radio One. 


Jeanette Kelly works as the arts reporter at CBC Montreal. She's also the host of Cinq à Six, Quebec's Saturday afternoon culture show on CBC Radio One.


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