Mabel May, a Canadian artist, was born in Westmount, Montreal, in 1884. Her journey as a painter began at an early age, but she didn’t pursue formal art education until she turned twenty-five. Under the guidance of William Brymner, the director of the Art Association of Montreal (AAM) at that time, she thrived and received two annual scholarships. The influence and encouragement she received from Brymner had a lasting impact on her artistic career.
Embracing the Impressionist Movement
During her time at the AAM, Mabel May’s passion for art flourished, and she decided to further her skills by traveling to France with her fellow graduate, Emily Coonan. France was a mecca for artists, and there, May was captivated by the works of the Impressionists, particularly Claude Monet and Renoir. The vibrant and dynamic brushstrokes of these masters left a profound impression on her artistic style. Moreover, she found herself drawn to the captivating works of Matisse, which added a new dimension to her creative vision.
European Exploration and Growth
In their European sojourn, Mabel May and Emily Coonan traversed various countries, visiting galleries, museums, and sketching picturesque landscapes. The exposure to diverse cultures and art scenes broadened their horizons and enriched their artistic expressions. Upon returning to Montreal, May brought back her European paintings, and one of her masterpieces found its rightful place in the prestigious National Gallery of Canada in 1913.
A Brush with History: War and Recognition
As the world grappled with the turmoil of World War I, Mabel May’s talent and dedication came to the forefront. She received a notable commission from the Canadian War Memorial to depict women working in munitions factories. This undertaking showcased her ability to portray the resilience and strength of women during challenging times. In 1916, she was honored as an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy, recognizing her significant contributions to the Canadian art scene.
The Formation of the Beaver Hall Group
In 1920, Mabel May, along with fellow AAM graduates Randolph Hewton, Edwin Holgate, and Lilias Newton, sought affordable studio space in Montreal. Together, they rented a three-story house at 305 Beaver Hall Hill, which became the birthplace of the Beaver Hall Group. They invited other colleagues from their AAM days to join them, and the group flourished under the presidency of their close friend, A.Y. Jackson. The Beaver Hall Group garnered recognition and earned invitations to exhibit alongside the esteemed Group of Seven.
A Lasting Legacy
Although the Beaver Hall Group disbanded after two years, Mabel May continued to leave her mark on Canada’s art landscape. In 1933, she became a founding member of the Canadian Group of Painters, an esteemed collective that branched off from the Group of Seven. Her dedication to nurturing artistic talent led to her appointment as the superintendent of Children’s Classes at the National Gallery in Ottawa in 1938. Even while in Ottawa, she kept her artistic flame alive by exhibiting at the renowned James Wilson and Co gallery.
The Culmination of an Illustrious Career
Mabel May returned to her beloved Montreal in 1947. Before retiring to Vancouver in 1950, she celebrated her artistic journey with a retrospective exhibition and sale of over 100 of her captivating works at the Dominion Gallery. Her artistic spirit never waned, and she remained active in the vibrant art scene of Vancouver until her passing in 1971.
Legacy and Recognition
Mabel May’s artistic legacy lives on, with her creations adorning the collections of esteemed Canadian institutions like the Beaverbrook Art Gallery in Fredericton, N.B., the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts, and the National Gallery of Canada in Ottawa. Her paintings continue to inspire and captivate art enthusiasts, a testament to her mastery and enduring influence on the Canadian art landscape. As we celebrate her life and work, we are reminded of the profound impact she left on the world of art, a legacy that will continue to shine brightly for generations to come.