The Beaver Hall Group, although initially considered to be a Montreal counterpart to Toronto’s Group of Seven, stood apart through their work: rather than offering an image of Canadian identity through depic­tions of the untamed landscapes of a northern country, the Montreal artists imbued the inhabited landscapes of a northern culture with the colours of mod­ernity.

They also painted many portraits that convey this same quest for mod­ernism; these works rank among the most remarkable in the history of Canadian art. The male-female parity within the group — a first in Quebec as in Canada — is another resolutely modern trait.

The exhibition shows how the question of gender goes hand in hand with the idea that the group’s diversity fuelled rich and fruitful exchanges. Although short-lived, the Beaver Hall Group provided rich soil for abundant and substantial art-making, now inextricably linked with the history of art in Montreal, Quebec and Canada.

The exhibition 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group presents works by its official members as well as by artists associated with them through friendship and solidarity: Nora Collyer, Emily Coonan, Adrien and Henri Hébert, Prudence Heward, Randolph S. Hewton, Edwin Holgate, A. Y. Jackson, John Y. Johnstone, Mabel Lockerby, Mabel May, Hal Ross Perrigard, Robert W. Pilot, Sarah Robertson, Anne Savage, Adam Sherriff Scott, Regina Seiden and Lilias Torrance Newton, as well as André Biéler, Ethel Seath, Kathleen Morris and Albert Robinson.

Publicité de l’Otis Fensom Elevator Company The Journal: Royal Architectural Institute of Canada, septembre 1930
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  • Prudence Heward, "Girl on a Hill", 1928, oil on canvas. Ottawa, National Gallery of Canada. Photo © NGC
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Portraits of Women

Beaver Hall artists dealt with a range of subjects, most of which centred on human presence. Fittingly, therefore, the artists were particularly known for their por­traiture, which critics often praised as the great strength of Montreal’s modern­ist artists during the 1920s and 1930s. Large numbers of these portraits are of women and, although male artists such as Edwin Holgate and Randolph Hewton were formidable portraitists, many of the most outstanding examples are by the group’s women. In this respect, Lilias Torrance Newton stands out, as she painted nearly three hundred portraits over her career, including the likenesses of some of the most venerable Canadians of the day.

  • Adrien Hébert, "Montreal Harbour", 1924, oil on canvas. Quebec City, Musée national des beaux-arts du Québec, achat.
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The Modern City according to Adrien Hébert

Among the artists of the Beaver Hall Group, Adrien Hébert was distinctive for his interest in the modern city. However, it was only in 1924—after participating in the group’s annual exhibitions—that Hébert explored the subjects of the port of Montreal and its downtown streets bustling with activity.

The composition of his harbour paintings, which highlight the enormity of the port facilities as seen from close up, is framed by the geometry of the grain ele­vators, conveyors, quays and ship’s masts. The odd human figure, often long­shoremen, literally blends into the scene of Montreal’s busy port, one of North America’s largest ports on the eastern seaboard at the time. Hébert’s street scenes are no less original. Although they show a number of subjects from modern life—streetcars, cars, shops, posters—they are also char­acterized by their pictorial treatment.

“Loud, brilliant, glaring colours . . . dominate and triumph at the Spring Exhibition. . . The aim is not harmonious tones, but colours that dazzle like the screech of a trumpet . . . The impression these colours create is similar to the feeling when a certain kind of jazz, transported, furiously flings out its most resounding, noisy, piercing notes. . .” (March 22, 1922).

Albert Laberge, La Presse

  • Randolph S. Hewton, "Miss Mary Macintosh", 1924 or earlier, oil on canvas. Peter Dobell. Photo David Barbour
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Jazz Wall

Their innovative approach began sparking controversy early in the decade, with the “jazz wall” presented at the Art Association’s Spring Exhibition of 1922. The inimitable critic of the Montreal Daily Star, S. Morgan-Powell, had this to say:

“There has been a riot among the students. No matter in what direction you turn, you see portraits in bright colours against astonishing backgrounds. There is a row of them immediately facing the staircase—and already it has been christened ‘the jazz wall’ . . .”

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On the same day, Paul Dupré published a similarly toned article in Le Devoir, where he criticized the “cacophony” generated by the works, the “orgy of loud colours, applied uniformly, as if by house painters, onto a structure from which even the most elementary principles of drawing seem to have been excluded.”

The same works were enthusiastically received, however, by Albert Laberge, writing in La Presse, who defended the artists in his reviews of the Beaver Hall Group’s annual exhibitions in 1921 and 1922. Jazz, like modern art, appealed to some and not to others, and Laberge used the jazz metaphor to laud the paint­ings so roundly criticized. He wrote: “Loud, brilliant, glaring colours . . . domin­ate and triumph at the Spring Exhibition . . . The aim is not harmonious tones, but colours that dazzle like the screech of a trumpet . . . The impression these colours create is similar to the feeling when a certain kind of jazz, transported, furiously flings out its most resounding, noisy, piercing notes . . .” (March 22, 1922)

Prudence Heward, Jeune femme sous un arbre, 1931, huile sur toile. Art Gallery of Hamilton. Gift of the artist's family.
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The Nude: New Canons of Feminine Beauty

Immediately after World War I and increasingly during the 1920s, the criteria governing female beauty and social distinctions were redefined. The ideal body was now slim, muscular and tanned, and women were encouraged in magazines and advertisements to acquire the new look through sports and physical exer­cise. The “modern woman” danced, smoked and drank, but she also went to the beach and practised winter sports. The altered female body image dominated the discourse on appearance and fashion illustrations alike. The freedom enjoyed by some artists, such as Lilias Torrance Newton and Prudence Heward, in their depictions of the increasingly free feminine body— long an object of censure—demonstrates how the body as subject can serve as a barometer of modernism.

“The younger iconoclasts of the ‘hit-em-in-the-eye’ school do not seem to realize that a good picture is not a jazzy and momentary sensation”

Hector Charlesworth

Her Story Today

Nearly one hundred years after the existence of the Beaver Hall Group (1920–1923), a seminal moment in the assertion of women as professional painters in Montreal, where do woman artists working with the paint medium stand today? This year’s Beaver Hall Group exhibition at the Museum offered the pretext for a reflection on the place assumed by women artists in Quebec and Canada’s art milieus.

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Edited by Jacques Des Rochers and Brian Foss, a scholarly publication with 350 pages and as many illustrations has been published in English and French by the MMFA’s Publishing Department and Black Dog Publishing.
On sale at the Museum Boutique and Bookstore.

The exhibition 1920s Modernism in Montreal: The Beaver Hall Group is produced by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts (MMFA) and will be circulated to the Art Gallery of Hamilton, the Art Gallery of Windsor and the Glenbow Museum, Calgary.

This project was made possible with the generous support of the A. K. Prakash Foundation, exhibition patron, and the Department of Canadian Heritage’s Museums Assistance Program. The exhibition is presented in Montreal by Osler, Hoskin & Harcourt LLP, in association with Heffel Fine Art Auction House, Air Canada, Bell and the Museum’s Volunteer Association. The Museum would also like to thank MABI, Richter, La Presse and The Gazette.

The Museum wishes to thank the Ministère de la Culture et des Communications du Québec for its invaluable help, as well as the Conseil des arts de Montréal and the Canada Council for the Arts for their ongoing support.

The Museum would also like to acknowledge the indispensable contribution of its Volunteer Guides and its members, as well as the many individuals, corporations and foundations – particularly the Fondation de la Chenelière, directed by Michel de la Chenelière, and the Arte Musica Foundation, presided over by Pierre Bourgie – that provide it with their magnanimous support.

We would also like to extend our gratitude to all those who, through their generous assistance, encouragement and support, made this exhibition and scholarly publication possible.

Women of Influence Circle

This exhibition on the Beaver Hall Group features exceptional women who, in the 1920s, were the first in Canadian history to join an association of professional artists. This event provided the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts with the perfect opportunity to launch the Women of Influence Circle. The Circle brings together influential women to help the Museum shine the spotlight on women who have had, or will have, an impact on our society, be it in the cultural, artistic, social or economic spheres.

We are grateful to the Circle’s founding members:

Sandra Abitan, Alix d’Anglejan-Chatillon, Christiane Bergevin, Sylvie Boileau, Johanne Champoux, Hélène Couture, Viviane Croux, France Denis Royer, Giovanna Francavilla, Carolina Gallo, Diane Giard, Anne- Marie Hubert, Isabelle Hudon, Suzanne Legge Orr, Constance Lemieux, Johanne Lépine, Mary Leslie, Isabelle Marcoux, Monique Parent, Miriam Pozza, Gurjinder P. Sall, Michelle R. Savoy, Marie Senécal-Tremblay and Martine Turcotte, under the leadership of Françoise E. Lyon.