Work & Bio

Arthur Lismer

Born in 1885
 / Died in 1969

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Arthur Lismer
1885 – 1969

“An understanding of psychology, a touch for the maternal, and a capacity for looking at the world through the eyes of a child – these are the marks of good guides and teachers.”
(Arthur Lismer, 1948)

As an immigrant from England, Arthur Lismer was fascinated by the Canadian landscape of rocks, pines, and expansive stretches of tumultuous water and sky. From 1920 he was a member of the Group of Seven, painters who advocated a new Canadian art that expressed the spirit of the nation through its landscape. Throughout his life he was a dedicated painter and draftsman and visionary teacher.

Lismer attended the Sheffield School of Art in the evenings on a scholarship (1898-1905) and during the day apprenticed at a photoengraving firm. In 1906 he studied at the Académie Royale des Beaux-Arts in Antwerp. He returned to Sheffield, where he worked in a commercial art studio before moving to Canada in January 1911.

Hired at the commercial art firm Grip Limited, and later at Rous & Mann, in Toronto, he met fellow artists J.E.H. MacDonald, Franklin Carmichael, and Tom Thomson. In 1913 he went on his first painting trip to Georgian Bay with his wife, Esther, and their baby daughter, and in 1914 to Algonquin Park.

In 1916 Lismer became principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design (now the Nova Scotia College of Art and Design) in Halifax. In 1917 an explosion in Halifax Harbour destroyed large sections of the city. Lismer captured the aftermath of this catastrophe in a series of drawings first published in the Canadian Courier. In 1918 he was commissioned by Canadian War Records to record returning troopships in Halifax Harbour in paintings and in lithographs. In 1919 he moved back to Toronto and became vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art (OCA).

Lismer was a charter member of the Group of Seven, and joined his fellow artists on painting trips to the Algoma region and north shore of Lake Superior. In 1928 he painted in the Rockies and from 1930 in the Atlantic provinces. His Impressionist-influenced paintings of the 1910s evolved into a more angular and cruder expression that he equated with the Canadian terrain and national identity. In his later work, Lismer concentrated on detailed foregrounds and tightly framed, close-up compositions of vegetation and land formations.

Lismer resigned from OCA in 1927 and became supervisor of education at the Art Gallery of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). He became a leading figure in child art education working in Toronto, South Africa, New York, and Montreal, where he moved in 1940. He taught at the Art Association of Montreal (now the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts) from 1940 until 1967.

A retrospective exhibition of Lismer’s work was organized by the Art Gallery of Toronto in 1950. The following year he travelled to Long Beach, Vancouver Island, where he spent summers for the rest of his life, and where the ocean and dense forests provided a new landscape to sketch and paint.

Courtesy the National Gallery of Canada

LISMER, Arthur


Born in Sheffield, Yorkshire, England, the son of a draper, and one of six children, he was the only one in the family who wanted to become an artist. At the age of nine he was continually sketching and making cartoons. His father took an interest in his work and carried his sketches under his coat to the shop to show his fellow employees. When Arthur was old enough he attended the Sheffield Central High School, and at the age of thirteen won a scholarship to study nights at the Sheffield School of Art. During the day he served his apprenticeship (seven years) in the printing business. When he was fifteen he took the post as illustrator for the Sheffield Independent in addition to his schooling and apprenticeship. At the Sheffield School of Art he found the instruction almost dull and wanted to experiment more freely, but nevertheless he was receiving a thorough grounding in basic fundamentals of drawing, design, and general knowledge of the visual arts. His job as illustrator took him to meetings and events to sketch people like George Bernard Shaw, Winston Churchill, evangelists Reuben Torrey and Charles McCallon Alexander and many others. When he was only sixteen Lismer became secretary to The Heeley Art Club. Its membership was made up mainly of cutler’s engravers who spent the weekends roaming the moors in search of subjects to sketch. In the evenings they would adjourn to the local pub to philosophize. Their association continued for another nine years. Lismer completed his apprenticeship with the Eadon Engraving Company and also his scholarship course at the Sheffield School of Art with distinction. Of particular interest to him was the work of John Constable (1776-1837), and he collected reproductions of Constable’s paintings. In 1906 Lismer went to Antwerp on the invitation of a friend who was a professor in the Berlitz School of Languages. He stayed with him and his wife while attending the Académie des Beaux-Arts. He rented a small studio over a baker’s shop where he worked on his painting. He remained in Antwerp for a year and a half (1906-7) while making trips to Paris and London. He visited the galleries and viewed the works of Cézanne, Van Gogh, Daubigny, Corot, and others. On his return to Sheffield following his studies he opened his own business of pictorial publicity and also took in an apprentice. He found it very hard to make ends meet but carried on for three years. Pictorial publicity did not come into its own for another ten years. Near the end of this three year period Lismer’s attentions were gradually turned to Canada. He received encouraging reports from William Broadhead who had gone out to Canada and found a job with the Grip Engraving Company. His interest intensified when several other men from Canadian engraving firms arrived in Sheffield in search of trained engravers. He was approached by a man named Grew (from Rolph-Clarke-Stone), then Fred Brigden and his father (Toronto Engraving Co.; later Brigden’s). After some hesitation he made his decision to go to Canada. He left his young fiancée Esther Mawson behind until he settled in a new job. Sailing on the S.S. Corsican he arrived at Halifax and finally reached Toronto in January of 1911. There he was hired by David Smith and Company. The manager of this firm made conditions so intolerable for Lismer that one day he quit on the spot with great justification. The following day (20th Feb., 1911) he joined Grip. The manager of this firm, Albert Robson, was sympathetic to his employees but also demanding. Lismer was introduced to his fellow employees including J.E.H. MacDonald, Tom Thomson, Frank Johnston, and others. He renewed his acquaintance with William Broadhead and met his friend Tom MacLean. It was Tom MacLean who invited Lismer to join the Arts and Letters Club. There the cultural spirit of Toronto flourished within its walls, while without, the city moved through its dreary routine unaware of the Club’s existence. It was at the Club that Lismer met Lawren Harris and A.Y. Jackson. The stage was now set for the exciting events which were to follow. In 1912 Lismer had saved enough money to return to Sheffield and marry Esther. They returned to Toronto and settled in a small house on Delaware Avenue. Lismer had been inspired by tales of Thomson and Broadhead after their canoe trip through many rivers and lakes ending along the Mississagi River and on to Bruce Mines where they boarded a ship for Midland. Lismer had listened keenly to their descriptions of sunsets, huge water falls, mountains, rapids, and soon longed to venture forth himself. He did his early sketching with Tom Thomson in and around Toronto. Each artist probably helped the other. Thomson’s great feeling for the north country would help immensely Lismer’s understanding of a land he wanted to know more about. Lismer’s thorough training at the Sheffield School of Art and his further study and travel in Europe coupled with an exceptional analytical faculty, probably made him an invaluable critic of Thomson’s early paintings. Of course Thomson was receiving advice from others in the Grip circle and in turn was imparting his deep feeling of the north country to them. In 1912 Robson changed firms and went to Rous and Mann taking Carmichael, Johnston, Lismer, Varley and Thomson with him. In May of 1913 Lismer’s only child Marjorie was born, and within four months he received an invitation to spend part of September at Dr. MacCallum’s summer home at Go Home Bay in the Georgian Bay area. MacCallum had become a patron of Canadian artists interested in painting open country, bushlands and lakes. The Lismers departed and soon arrived at Penetanguishene where they were picked up by an open speed boat. After putting up for the night because of stormy water they arrived the following day at MacCallum’s Island to spend the next two weeks. It was here that he experienced for the first time a spiritual awakening towards the Canadian landscape. He made a number of sketches. In 1913 he had accepted an offer to teach summers in art for Ontario teachers under the director­ship of G.A. Reid. The classes were held under the auspices of the Ontario College of Art. Money was scarce and it gave him a reliable income. Equally important, it introduced him to a role which was to take up more of his time as the years went by. In May of 1914 Lismer made his first visit to Algonquin Park in the company of Tom Thomson. They set up their main camp on Molly’s Island in Smoke Lake and for three weeks they visited Ragged Lake, Wolf Lake and Crown Lake, lived in a pup tent and travelled by canoe. Lismer made several sketches. Two are reproduced in Dennis Reid’s The Group of Seven and one in R.H. Hubbard’s National Gallery of Canada Catalogue, Volume Three. Lismer returned to Toronto to his job at Rous and Mann. But in the autumn of that same year, he was back in the Park with his wife and daughter. They joined forces with A.Y. Jackson, Varley, and Thomson. On this memorable occasion a photograph was taken of Thomson, Jackson, Lismer, on one side of a picnic table; Varley, Mrs. Lismer and her baby daughter (foreground) on the other. Mrs. Lismer and baby probably stayed at Mowat Lodge or might have returned to Toronto. Varley and Lismer camped at one site, Jackson and Thomson at another. Many sketches were made that fall from which important canvases were produced. Lismer painted “The Guide’s Home” and Jackson “The Red Maple”; both paintings have been reproduced in many publications. “The Guide’s Home” was done in the French impressionist technique reminiscent perhaps of Pissaro. It was sketched at the mouth of Potter and Joe Creeks and was in fact the home of George Rowe and Larry Dickson. When Lismer returned to Toronto he did the large canvas which was then exhibited in the Royal Canadian Academy show and acquired by the National Gallery shortly afterwards. A fine reproduction of it appears in Peter Mellen’s book. In March of 1915 Lismer visited Dr. MacCallum’s Island and he also seems to have continued to paint canvases based on his Algonquin trip, or a visit to Huntsville nearby. “Sumach and Maple, Huntsville” dated 1915 is reproduced in very good colour in Harper’s Painting In Canada: A History. Lismer moved to St. John Street, Thornhill in September 1915 and lived next door to J.E.H. MacDonald. During March of 1915 he visited Dr. MacCallum at Go Home Bay. In the fall the Doctor commissioned J.E.H. MacDonald, Thomson, and Lismer to paint decorative wall panels for the living room of the cottage. The wall space was measured and the artists went to work in the Studio Building that winter. In April of 1916 the panels (beaverboard) were installed as a birthday surprise for Mrs. MacCallum. Lismer’s part included six panels “The Picnic”, “The Campers”, “The Ducks”, “The Sea Gulls”, “The Fishermen” and “The ‘Skinny-dip'”. A.Y. Jackson com­pleted the decorations in 1953 (all panels were given to the National Gallery of Canada in 1968 by the present owners of the cottage, Mr. & Mrs. H.R. Jackman). In the late summer of 1916 Lismer departed with his family to Halifax where he became principal of the Victoria School of Art and Design. During his stay of four years the school grew to about one hundred and fifty students which included some soldiers and sailors who were either waiting for overseas transport, or were on extended disembarkation leave. He also opened, for the first time, his Saturday morning art classes for high school and elementary school pupils. He gave art instruction as well to the handicapped. The Lismers settled in a house ten miles beyond the city limits of Halifax. Luckily he missed his train the morning of the Halifax explosion. But the shock of the explosion blew in the windows of their home. Although many schools were demolished the Victoria School of Art was only moderately damaged but was still a scene of horror as bodies were brought in from the streets to be thawed out beside the large furnace in the school basement. Lismer found himself climbing over empty coffins to get into his office. One of his best students had been killed and others suffered serious injuries. When he was not on relief work he kept from being overcome by the tragic events by making sketches of the city for the Canadian Courier in Toronto. After enquiring from The National Gallery, Lismer received a commission from the Canadian War Records in June of 1918, to paint the activities of the Canadian armed forces around Halifax. During this period he did several large canvases “The ‘Olympic’ with Returned Soldiers” (48″ x 64″), “Mine Sweepers, Halifax” (48″ x 64″), “Convoy in Bedford Basin” (36″ x 102″), “Halifax Harbour – Time of War” (42″ x 52″), several black chalk drawings, and about seventeen lithographs with scenes of ships and seaplanes. His large war paintings (above) are bold in design through Lismer’s play on the ships’ camouflage. He also did many drawings and paintings apart from his War Records commission. Perhaps of greater importance was his development of techniques in child art education. In July of 1919 he exhibited fifty-three canvases at the Victoria School of Art and Design. In August he moved back to Toronto with his family in preparation to take over his duties of vice-principal of the Ontario College of Art, the job having been offered to him in April by G.A. Reid, princi­pal. Before leaving Halifax he had recommended to the board of the Victoria School of Art and Design the name of Elizabeth Nutt of Sheffield to take over in his place. This she did with great ability and forcefulness. During this year Lismer was elected Associate of the Royal Canadian Academy. The war had left its mark in Toronto particularly at the Arts and Letters Club where some of the absentees had been killed, while others were still on duty and had not yet been released. Lismer purchased a house which his wife had chosen. He made the purchase despite the fact that there was little room for his studio. Buying the house at all was made possible by a cheque from the National Gallery of Canada for War Records work. Lismer found studio space with A.Y. Jackson at the Studio Building and they continued to paint War Records until October when Lismer took up his duties at the Ontario College of Art. In the spring of 1920 however he joined Jackson, Harris, MacDonald and Dr. MacCallum on a trip to Algoma country. They travelled on the Algoma Central Railway in a special railway freight car fitted out with windows, lamps, bunks, stove, water-tank, sink and cupboards. Harris had made arrangements with the railroad on two previous trips for a special boxcar to the same region with Dr. MacCallum, MacDonald and Frank Johnston in mid-September of 1918 and again in the fall of 1919 with Jackson, MacDonald and Johnston. The boxcar A.C.R. 10557 was in effect a studio on wheels. Lismer returned to Algoma in the spring and autumn of 1921 and the spring of 1924 and 1925. He also returned to Georgian Bay in 1920 with Varley and Dr. MacCallum. It was then that he made his first sketch (acquired by Dr. J. Parnell, Van. B.C.) for his large canvas “A September Gale, Georgian Bay”. A larger study was made from the sketch (acquired by NGC from Vincent Massey bequest, 1968) and finally the canvas itself which was acquired by the National Gallery of Canada in 1926. At the same time Varley developed his “Stormy Weather, Georgian Bay” but completed it later than Lismer’s work. Lismer exhibited sixteen of his works in his First Group of Seven show at the Art Gallery of Ontario in 1920. In 1922 he completed “Isles of Spruce” (47″ x 64″) purchased by the Hart House Committee of 1927-8. The sketch for this work was made at Sand Lake, Algoma, in 1921, and the final work in 1922. This painting is of a northern lake in complete calm with a cluster of spruce trees on a low rocky island casting a reflection on the water. The viewer feels not a living thing stirs under a blue sky with high floating clouds, giving a sense of isolation and silence which is perhaps broken by the sound of a distant crow or loon. The clear air is scented by the smell of spruce, pine, and the dry leaves of autumn. A reproduction of this work was made by Sampson-Matthews of Toronto, and in September, 1970, the Canadian Post Office Department issued a six cent stamp featuring this work to commemorate the 50th anniversary of the founding of the Group of Seven. The stamp was reproduced by Ashton-Potter Ltd. of Toronto in 36,000,000 copies. Lismer did hundreds of sketches and drawings on his trips to Georgian Bay, Algoma, the Maritimes, and around Toronto. Through his deft caricatures we are given informal glimpses of Thomson, Harris, Jackson, and others as well as their critics. During these years he continued to teach at the Ontario College of Art but unable to implement all his teaching methods and concepts of discipline, he resigned as vice-principal of the College in 1927 although he continued with his duties as principal of the College’s summer school. The same year he was offered and accepted the post of educational supervisor of the Art Gallery of Toronto. In this capacity he was able to implement ideas on child and adult art education which he had begun to develop in Halifax. He was influenced in this work by the great Viennese teacher and artist, Franz Cizek. Cizek felt that children should not be taught art in order to provide them with something useful in adult life or to be trained to become future artists. But children should be allowed to have a profound spiritual experience through their own creativeness, and freedom to express their thoughts and instinctive feelings. To Cizek great artists were men who preserved spiritual attributes from the world of the child. It was in 1927 that Lismer arranged for a large travelling exhibition of the Cizek children’s drawings and paintings to be shown at the Art Gallery of Toronto. Also he organized his Saturday morning classes through the co-operation of schools who submitted names of interested children. With an excellent group of teachers the classes were launched. Later the Art Centre for Children was initiated. His responsibilities also required him to give informal gallery talks to thousands of visitors, study groups and members of the Gallery; classes for teachers from public and private schools and the setting up of reading and reference room facilities. A loan system was also initiated for slides and films. During the summers of 1927, 1928, 1929 and 1930 he sketched in the Gaspé Peninsula, Rocky Mountains, McGregor Bay (at Georgian Bay), New Brunswick and Nova Scotia. From his Rocky Mountain trip he did the canvas “Cathedral Mountain” (48-1/4″ x 56-1/4″) which was acquired by the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In March of 1932 under the auspices of the National Gallery of Canada, Lismer set out on a tour across Canada to deliver a number of lectures including “The Necessity of Art”, “Art Appreciation”, “Art in Canada”, “Educa­tion Through Art”, “Art and the Child” and “Canadian Painting To-day”. His tour was a great success. He also talked with informal luncheon groups and casual audiences. His wife accompanied him throughout the tour. In 1932 he was invited to the New Educational Fellowship conferences in France and England and South Africa in 1934; United States in 1935 and 1936; Australia and New Zealand in 1937. Also in 1936-7, at the request of the government, he lectured to teachers and established children’s art classes in South Africa. At all these places during his free hours he invariably sketched. It was in South Africa that he used water colours extensively for the first time because they were more easily carried. In 1938-39 he was a visiting professor at Teachers’ College, Columbia University, where he taught four courses and devoted the balance of his time to visiting New York City schools and colleges. It was at these schools and colleges that he studied the con­ceptions of art education. These trips took him further afield to Milwaukee and Iowa also to Massachusetts and New Jersey. He spent long hours with Dr. Frederick Keppel discussing his findings. It was Dr. Keppel who had made possible a grant from the Carnegie Foundation to support Lismer’s Saturday classes and also for the Child Art Centre. His daughter Marjorie attended Columbia University at the same time, where she took a post graduate course in anthropology. While at Columbia University he accepted a post in Ottawa at the National Gallery. He arrived there to take up his new duties in October of 1939. The plan was to set up a national art programme which had been originated by Eric Brown but shortly after Lismer’s arrival Eric Brown died. The plan was never fully realized. By then the outbreak of the Second World War drastically reduced the activities of the Gallery. But Lismer gave lectures on “Peter Brueghel”, “Goya”, “Daumier”, “Cézanne”, “Van Gogh” and lectures based on his 1932 tour but enriched by his travelling and teaching experiences. In 1940 he became Educational Supervisor for the Montreal Museum of Fine Arts. In 1946 was elected full member of the Royal Canadian Academy. He became Assistant Professor of the Department of Fine Arts at McGill University in 1948. He received from Dalhousie University, N.S., an Honorary Diploma of LL.D. (1941); McGill University, Honorary LL.D. (1963). Relating a story which happened at the time he received his first LL.D. he recalled, “An hour after I got it I stopped in a little store to make a phone call and tried out the sound of it. The storekeeper said ‘O, doctor, I’m so glad you’re here, my baby is sick.’ I told her I was a horse doctor.” A man of keen humour he once explained when he did his serious paintings as follows, “I spend six weeks in the wilds of British Columbia, where there’s no telephone and not a child within 90 miles. I make enough sketches to keep me painting the rest of the year. I usually work when there are dishes to be done, so I’ve got in the habit of painting a picture as fast as my wife can wash the dishes.” For well over a decade Lismer and his wife spent about a month at Long Beach, B.C., using as his base Wickanninish Lodge. R.E. Baker of Long Beach recalled in The Vancouver Sun, “We rarely saw him painting. I think the treasure trove of his sketch book sustained his work during the grim winters of the Eastern city. But two summers ago we came across him painting on a height above the beach. My small boy crept up quietly behind him to take a peek at his work. Without turning his head or staying his brush, Arthur Lismer said, ‘That’ll cost you $5 a peek.’ My boy jumped back but was soon disarmed when Lismer turned his head to reveal the merry twinkle in his eyes that penetrated the thick bush of his eyebrows.” In later years he exhibited his paintings at the Dominion Gallery, Mtl.; Laing Galleries, Tor. (1959); Galerie Agnes Lefort (1963); Galerie Martal, Mtl. (1965) and probably elsewhere. He was further honoured by a Canada Council Medal presented to him by the late George P. Vanier, Governor-General of Canada. Lismer died in 1969 at the age of eighty-three. He is survived by his wife Esther and daughter, Mrs. Philip Bridges of Ashton, Md., U.S.A. A retrospective exhibition of his work was held at the National Gallery of Canada in May of 1969 and was organized by Pierre Theberge, assistant curator of Canadian art. Lismer is repre­sented in most Canadian Public Collections including: National Gallery of Canada (Ott.); Art Gallery of Ontario (Tor.); Hart House, U. of T. (Tor.); The McMichael Conservation Collection (Kleinburg, Ont.); Agnes Etherington Art Centre, Queen’s Univ. (Kingston, Ont.); London Public Library and Art Museum (Lond., Ont.); Winnipeg Art Gallery (Winnipeg, Man.); University of Sask. (Saskatoon); Montreal Museum of Fine Arts; Sir George Williams Univ. (Mtl.); The New Brunswick Museum, Saint John, N.B.; Dalhousie Art Gallery, Dalhousie Univ., Halifax, N.S.; and in the private collections of: John Parnell (Van., B.C.); Mr. & Mrs. J.S. McLean (Tor., Ont.); Mr. & Mrs. A.R. Laing (Tor., Ont.); C.S. Band (Tor., Ont.); J.S. Vaughan (Tor., Ont.); Mrs. John D. Eaton (Tor., Ont.); Mr. & Mrs. Erichsen Brown (Tor., Ont.); Mr. & Mrs. Jules Loeb (Lucerne, P.Q.); Miss K.M. Fenwick (Ott., Ont.); Mr. Walter Klinkhoff (Mtl., P.Q.) and many other collections.

Colin S. MacDonald

A Dictionary of Canadian Artists, volumes 1-8 by Colin S. MacDonald, and volume 9 (online only), by Anne Newlands and Judith Parker
National Gallery of Canada / Musée des beaux-arts du Canada