The Sunday Magazine

'Remember me as an artist': The rediscovery of Canadian painter Mary Hiester Reid

Mary Hiester Reid was one of the most accomplished and admired Canadian painters of her time, but when she died, she vanished, almost entirely erased from the canon of Canadian art history Now a new generation of curators, art historians and art lovers are rediscovering her work.

'Think about what it is that in her subtle, quiet way ... she does offer us,' says AGO curator

Why should the world care about a 19th century flower painter?

3 years ago
Duration 3:45
Mary Hiester Reid was recognized as one of the most talented and prolific Canadian painters of her time. But when she died, she vanished, almost entirely erased from the canon of Canadian art history.

She disappeared for nearly a century, and now she's back.

Mary Hiester Reid, the artist best known for her still life paintings of flowers, was one of the most prolific and well-known artists of her generation.

But after she died in 1921, her reputation and her art all but vanished from the public eye. It was almost as though she had never existed, so erased was she from the canon of Canadian art history.

"I first discovered Mary Hiester Reid at the Art Gallery of Ontario," said poet and biographer, Molly Peacock.

Photo gallery: Mary Hiester Reid (1854-1921)

The painting is titled A Study in Greys. Peacock was struck by the repetition of threes: three pewter objects, three roses, and a painting divided horizontally into three. 

"What is with all that triangulation?" she wondered. 

And then she knew, she had her story.

This is the story of a woman ahead of her time. A woman who negotiated a marriage and a career — who kept her name, her identity, and her profession. Someone who paved the way for generations of artists.

"Each time Mary Hiester Reid embarked on a painting, it seemed that she was embarking on a personal psychological expression. That's how I began to think of her as painting a diary of her life," said Peacock. 

Mary Hiester was born in Reading, Pa., in 1854. She studied at the Pennsylvania Academy of the Fine Arts, the first art school in the United States. There she met and married the Canadian painter, George Agnew Reid. Together they settled in Toronto.

Portrait of Mary Hiester Reid by George Agnew Reid, 1898. Oil on canvas. Gift of Mary Wrinch Reid, Toronto, 1954. (Art Gallery of Ontario 53/36)

It was a remarkable artistic partnership. He would become the principal of what was then the Ontario School of Art (now OCAD University), and painted large historical murals. She painted much smaller, intimate canvases of flowers, landscapes, and scenes of her interior world.

The pair built a home and a life in the artist colony of Wychwood Park.

Wychwood Park, a neighbourhood n Toronto, was a draw for artists in the 1800s. It was home to Mary Hiester Reid. (Alisa Siegel/CBC)

Hiester Reid surrounded herself with other women artists. 

"They grew strength from each other in what was then a very young, artistic community," said Georgiana Uhlyarik, curator of Canadian art at the Art Gallery of Ontario.

"They were artists who understood that they needed to have a social circle. They needed to have soirées and gatherings in their studios in order to sell their paintings, in order to announce that they are artists, and that they make their living being an artist."

'Remember me as an artist'

At the time, most artists who were women had to make a choice. Marriage or art. Those who married often had their art relegated to a hobby. Not Mary Hiester Reid. She boldly maintained a serious professional practice. She painted, she taught, she exhibited and she sold her works.

Mary Hiester Reid in her Paris studio, 1888–89. Photograph by George Agnew Reid. (George Agnew Reid Fonds, Edward P. Taylor Library & Archives, Art Gallery of Ontario.)

"She has this determined look on her face," said Renée van der Avoird, assistant curator of Canadian art at the AGO. "To me, she's really signalling her identity as a painter and saying, 'Remember me as a serious and professional painter. Remember me as an artist.'" 

Mary Hiester Reid died in 1921. The following year, she was celebrated and memorialized at the Art Gallery of Toronto. It was an historic moment: the gallery's first solo exhibition by a woman artist. The exhibition rooms were filled with flowers. They were filled too with her collectors, admirers, art critics and colleagues.

This was a salute to a woman by other women painters.- Molly Peacock

The show was pulled together largely by the women painters who were her friends, said Molly Peacock.

"This was a salute to a woman by other women painters. And she deserved that salute."

The Group of Seven is formed

But her death coincided with a revolution in Canadian art history. Just months before she died, the Group of Seven was formed.

Frederick Varley, A. Y. Jackson, Lawren Harris, Barker Fairley (not a member), Frank Johnston, Arthur Lismer, and J. E. H. MacDonald. (F1075-12 M.O. Hammond/Archives of Ontario)

"It's almost as if the formation of the Group of Seven marks a dividing line between Canadian art as it was before, and 20th century Canadian art as it will be afterwards," explained Brian Foss, professor of art history at Carleton University.

"Art that is bright, that has blazing colours, that often has thick paint application and sharp clear lines. Art that treats its subject in an aggressive way. Art that is intended to be declarative."

Modernism and The Group's bold paintings of the Canadian wilderness set the tone for the next many decades and left little room for the subtle flower paintings by Mary Hiester Reid.

Mary Hiester Reid is yet another case of the frequently told story of a woman artist who has simply been neglected and ... pushed out of popular consciousness.- Brian Foss

So much so, that "when in 1943, William Colgate published an important book on historical and contemporary Canadian art, Mary Hiester Reid wasn't even mentioned. Not at all. Not a word," said Foss.

"Mary Hiester Reid is yet another case of the frequently told story of a woman artist who has simply been neglected and shoved off to the sidelines and pushed out of popular consciousness. Someone who had a major career, who mattered, who was important, and who immediately after her death disappeared." 

A once-forgotten artist rediscovered

Mary Hiester Reid's art and life are now being rediscovered by new generations of curators, art historians, and writers. Molly Peacock's biography, Flower Diary: Mary Hiester Reid Paints, Travels, Marries & Manages a Threesome, will be published next year by ECW Press. And the Art Gallery of Ontario will mount an exhibition of her work to open later this year.

AGO curator Uhlyarik wanted to immerse herself in the artist's works. She wanted to remember what it was to stop in front of A Study in Greys so many years ago.

"[It's] a painting that would be very difficult to argue has advanced modernism and radical use of colour. And instead try to think about what it is that in her subtle, quiet way, she does insist on, [what] she does offer us."

Mary Hiester Reid in her studio, c.1911. (City of Toronto Archives, Fonds 1244, Item 703G)

As for her biographer, Molly Peacock, who has lived with a 19th century flower painter for the past eight years? Sometimes she feels Mary Hiester Reid tapping on her shoulder, tugging a little bit at her sleeve.

"There's a way in which I have an urge to bring her into the 21st century and say, 'See, this is how women live now. And you are one of the reasons that we can live the way we do.' Her life speaks to our lives. And through her, we can know the joy of reaching back into the past and feeling a hand grip ours in that way that says, 'I was alive. And you are too.'"

Click 'listen' above to hear Alisa Siegel's documentary, 'Painting a Life.'

Add some “good” to your morning and evening.

A variety of newsletters you'll love, delivered straight to you.

Sign up now


To encourage thoughtful and respectful conversations, first and last names will appear with each submission to CBC/Radio-Canada's online communities (except in children and youth-oriented communities). Pseudonyms will no longer be permitted.

By submitting a comment, you accept that CBC has the right to reproduce and publish that comment in whole or in part, in any manner CBC chooses. Please note that CBC does not endorse the opinions expressed in comments. Comments on this story are moderated according to our Submission Guidelines. Comments are welcome while open. We reserve the right to close comments at any time.

Become a CBC Member

Join the conversation  Create account

Already have an account?