Prior to World War I, Holgate enrolled in the Académie de la Grande Chaumière in Paris, where he became more interested in life drawing, influenced by one of his professors, Émile René Ménard, who was devoted to painting female nudes outdoors. In the early 1920s, he studied at the Académie Colarossi, under the direction of the Russian artist who became Holgate’s true master, Adolf Milman, who convinced him to mine the many opportunities offered by nudes from life. On returning to Canada, Holgate held evening classes in life drawing at his studio for his students at Montreal’s École des Beaux-Arts, where he taught engraving.
Nude by a Lake is the artist’s first major work to depict a nude in nature—a subject to which he would devote the next two decades. In this work, the particular qualities of wood engraving, notably the interplay of curved lines and contrasts of black and white, give the impression that the nude figure’s body merges into the landscape. According to certain critics at the time, portraying a nude within a natural setting was the best way to avoid controversy. By drawing on a long-standing artistic tradition, Holgate curbed the erotic nature of his subject.