Emily Carr, Joan Mitchell artworks take the auction spotlight

Artwork by Emily Carr, Joan Mitchell and a solid contingent of female artists takes the spotlight at auction in Toronto Wednesday, at a time when the art world is making greater efforts at inclusion.

Picasso's Femme au chapeau, depicting surrealist Dora Maar, is another highlight

The 1912 oil painting Street, Alert Bay by Emily Carr, right, is one of the highlights of an auction in Toronto Wednesday. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House/Canadian Press)

Artwork by Emily Carr, Joan Mitchell and a solid contingent of female artists takes the spotlight at auction in Toronto Wednesday, at a time when the art world is making greater efforts at inclusion.

A great painting is always a great painting, but sometimes it can take decades — or even generations — for the public to recognize, understand and appreciate an artist's work, said David Heffel, president of Heffel Fine Art Auction House.

"It's the hardest vocation in the world. You have to be stubborn and dedicated and passionate — and you know, Carr was all of those," he said.

Emily Carr's Street, Alert Bay, for instance, revisits pieces she'd created several years earlier documenting First Nations villages in coastal B.C. In the renewed works, however, she channelled the bold, vibrantly coloured influence she gained from spending time with fauve artists in France. 

Just back from Paris, "she'd retooled her paint box with the tools of modern art," said Heffel.

More than three decades later, Street, Alert Bay was among the works influential art dealer Max Stern hand-picked from Carr's studio for one of the few commercially successful exhibitions held during her lifetime, he added. 

Carr created Street, Alert Bay by revisiting an earlier work and injecting a bold, colourful new perspective. Heffel has estimated the work to sell for between $2 million and $3 million. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

The oil-on-canvas piece, which shows a string of waterfront homes, a pair of totem poles and residents of the village of Alert Bay on Cormorant Island, was also the image Stern chose for the cover of the publication promoting the 1944 Carr show at the famed Dominion Gallery — a decision echoed by Heffel in its catalogue for its Canadian impressionist and modern art sale, taking place live in Toronto Wednesday evening.

A public boost from museums

Another work that landed a headline slot — featured on the cover of Heffel's post-war and contemporary art sale catalogue — is the mid-century canvas Untitled by celebrated U.S. artist Joan Mitchell.

Based in France, Mitchell was a leading figure among the American abstract expressionist artists. She had a tumultuous relationship with Canadian artist Jean-Paul Riopelle for more than 20 years, and the couple's work was part of a 2017-2018 exhibit from the Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec.

Mitchell will be celebrated with a 2020 retrospective, opening at the Baltimore Museum of Art before travelling to San Francisco and New York. 

Last week, the Baltimore museum announced it would only add art by female artists to its permanent collection in 2020, in an attempt to rectify a drastic imbalance, "correct" its canon and address historical blind spots.

Joan Mitchell's Untitled, an oil-on-canvas work from 1956-1958, is expected to sell for $350,000 to $500,000. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

Museum exhibitions and art auctions can work in tandem to stimulate attention to and recognition of female artists, noted Heffel, whose company partnered on the recent Mitchell-Riopelle show.

A successful retrospective boosts public attention for an artist, for instance, which might inspire a collector to consider selling her work — perhaps even setting a record price at auction. That, in turn, may motivate further study of her body of work or introduce her to a new generation of art lovers.

Public excitement about the work of a female artist is something Heffel said he noticed last month in Calgary, at the Glenbow Museum's major retrospective of English-Canadian artist and printmaker Sybil Andrews

"Very young people are very much excited by the show. The atmosphere had tremendous energy, and the curators really just did a fabulous job at presentation," he said.

"It was an eye-opener for our staff that was visiting Calgary."

Racing, a linocut from 1934 by British-Canadian artist and printmaker Sybil Andrews, is estimated to sell for between $25,000 and $35,000. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

Along with artwork by Carr, Mitchell and Andrews, Wednesday's sale will also include pieces by Daphne Odjig, Kathleen Morris, Doris McCarthy, Prudence Heward, Marcelle Ferron, Mary Pratt, Joyce Wieland, Rita Letendre and Barbara Hepworth.

Dora Maar in the spotlight 

Perhaps the highest profile lot of Wednesday's sale is Pablo Picasso's Femme au chapeau, a 1941 oil painting depicting one of his most famous muses, Dora Maar. The canvas was among the works showcased in 1956 at the Kootz Gallery in New York, Picasso's first commercial art show in the U.S.

Pablo Picasso's Femme au chapeau, a depiction of artist Dora Maar, carries a pre-sale estimate of $8 million to $10 million. (Heffel Fine Art Auction House)

In recent years, Maar herself has been "getting a lot more attention and reassessment for her importance as a surrealist photographer, painter and artist," Heffel noted, including with a just-opened retrospective at the U.K.'s Tate Modern, following its showing at the Centre Pompidou in Paris.

The Picasso is among the lots offered for sale Wednesday by foreign collectors, something that signals Canada's rising place in the global art market, according to Heffel. More than half of the auction, by expected dollar value, has been consigned from outside Canada.

"Canada and Toronto in particular has a great reputation," he said, noting that political uncertainty can affect international auction centres like London, Paris and Hong Kong.

"With the growing success of the Toronto International Art Fair and a powerful [Canadian] banking system and economy, it's a great opportunity to take a star role in the global art market. Picasso's just one more move to get us up there."


Jessica Wong

Senior digital writer

Based in Toronto, Jessica Wong covers Canadian education stories for CBC News. She previously covered arts and entertainment news, both national and international, and has been a digital journalist for CBC since 2001. You can reach her at Jessica.Wong@cbc.ca.