Exploring the art of Maud Lewis through a critical lens
(Halifax, NS) - For years Nova Scotia painter Maud Lewis's work has been described as "quaint," and "joyful." As an artist, Lewis's lack of formal training and "childlike" portrayal of the world around her is often the polestar. Whether it's her iconic Oxen in Spring or Three Black Cats, Lewis's paintings are often used to market an idea of rural Nova Scotia as an Edenic paradise worthy of tourist dollars. But has anyone ever situated Maud Lewis within the wider context of art history? Why do some artists—like Andy Warhol or Claude Monet—get praised for their repetition of certain motifs, but the same approach is often used as a point of detraction when discussing the works of Maud Lewis?
Curator and art historian Dr. Laurie Dalton explores these questions and more in her new book, Painted Worlds: The Art of Maud Lewis, A Critical Perspective, forthcoming from Nimbus Publishing on April 5, 2022. Dalton pushes past what others have already written about the artist, and focuses on what seems to be lacking in the storytelling and mythmaking: that she was a skilled artist who drew inspiration from her surroundings.
"Rather than thinking of Maud Lewis as an artist who was untrained, unskilled, and worked in total isolation," says Dalton, "we ought to reframe her as an artist who, through her observation of landscape and culture, created composite images of what inspired her."
Dalton frames Lewis's work through discussions of painterly technique, colour theory, and shares some never-before-seen advertisements and popular culture items that likely directly inspired the artist. Dalton does not simply regard Lewis's paintings as ethnographic objects of rural Nova Scotia, but as serious works of art to be carefully examined. With over 50 full-colour paintings, archival images, and photographs, the book is a visual treat.
Maud Lewis's paintings continue to hold fascination, with an exhibit of her works at the Art Gallery of Hamilton in Ontario just ended, and more recently the theft of two paintings worth $20,000 each from a cottage on the Nova Scotia coast. An upcoming exhibit, A Century of the Artist's Studio, 1920–2020, opened on February 17, 2022, at the Whitechapel Gallery in London, UK, features Maud Lewis's work alongside 80 other great artists of the 20th century. The exhibit runs until May 29, 2022.
Dr. Laurie Dalton is the director/curator of the Acadia University Art Gallery and an adjunct professor in the Department of History & Classics. Her research interests lie in Canadian visual culture and museum and exhibition history, in particular how "meaning" is a process of display, didactics, and audience exchange. Painted Worlds releases April 5, and will be available through booksellers everywhere.