Hortense Gordon

Hortense Gordon, painter (born 24 November 1886 in Hamilton, ON; died 6 November 1961 in Hamilton). Hortense Gordon was one of two female founding members of the Ontario-based group of abstract artists known as Painters Eleven.

Hortense Gordon, painter (born 24 November 1886 in Hamilton, ON; died 6 November 1961 in Hamilton). Hortense Gordon was one of two female founding members of the Ontario-based group of abstract artists known as Painters Eleven. Like the other members of Painters Eleven, Gordon was influenced by Abstract Expressionism. She also taught design and applied arts, such as ceramics, at a technical school in Hamilton for many years.

Early Life, Education and Teaching

Hortense Gordon was born Hortense Crompton Mattice in 1886 in Hamilton, Ontario. She revealed her interest in art at an early age, receiving a scholarship to attend Saturday morning classes at the Hamilton Art School when she was only eight years old. When she was 17 she started taking part-time art classes at the Hamilton Technical and Art School, which had previously been known as the Hamilton Art School. Perhaps because of the competitive nature of her relationship with her sister, Marian, who was also an artist, Gordon moved to Chatham in southwestern Ontario to live with relatives that same year. Gordon frequently traveled to Detroit, Michigan to visit a cousin, and during these trips she visited museums. In 1915, Gordon visited the National Gallery of Art in Washington, DC, where she would have seen early works by important modernist artists such as Picasso and Matisse, whose paintings of the early 20th century had gained attention in France.

Gordon subsequently enrolled in painting classes at the Ursuline convent in Chatham, where she additionally studied china decoration. She was influenced by the work of William Morris (1834–96), a key figure in the British Arts and Crafts Movement. Around this time her aunt Mary rented a studio for her in Chatham and installed a kiln in close proximity to the family’s farmhouse. Gordon began offering private lessons in ceramic painting and pottery making. She also briefly taught at the Chatham Vocational School, but she moved back to Hamilton in 1917, having received an offer of a teaching job from John Sloan Gordon (1868–1940), the head of the art department of the Hamilton Technical and Art School. She began teaching at the school in 1918, and the two artists married in 1920.Gordon created a ceramics course at the school, which from 1923 was known as the Hamilton Technical Institute. During the Depression, Gordon was dedicated to teaching her students skills that would help them find employment. She also contacted local businesses and encouraged them to hire her students. In 1924, Gordon was the first of the members of the Hamilton Technical Institute’s art department to write an article for the Hamilton Spectator. The article was entitled “Design and Applied Art Essential to Industry.”

Travel and European Modernism

For more than a decade, Gordon and her husband travelled to France every summer. Rather than living in Paris, they resided in Étaples, a village in northern France near the English Channel.

Like her friend Alexandra Luke, the other female member of Painters Eleven, Gordon initially painted landscapes. For instance, in March 1909, the Ontario Society of Artists jury had accepted her landscape painting Early Morning in the Cornfield (1908) for its spring show at the Art Museum of Toronto (now the Art Gallery of Ontario). In the 1920s, Gordon began to be influenced by contemporaries such as Bertram Brooker and Kathleen Munn, who were two of Canada’s first abstract painters. Gordon wanted a better understanding of Cubism, and she set out to learn more about avant-garde art when she traveled to France with her husband. Based on her knowledge of modern European art, Gordon began to experiment with colour and moved away from her traditionalist style.

Gordon’s paintings of the early 1920s indicate the influence of Cubism, a style of painting that fragments bodies and forms. However, in 1922, the first year she traveled to France, her interest in Cubism was supplanted by an enthusiasm for abstraction. The first suggestions of abstraction appear in works that Gordon painted of the Channel Islands in 1932. Gordon continued to refine her individual abstract style through the 1940s and 1950s. In 1953, she was a founding member of Painters Eleven, a group of abstract artists based in Ontario. Gordon was 67 at the time, making her the oldest member of the group.

Memberships and Teaching Career

Gordon became a member of the Ontario Society of Artists in 1908, and she was elected an associate of the Royal Canadian Academy of Arts in 1930. She was also involved in the Hamilton Women’s Art Association. During the 1930s she co-organized with her husband an informal speakers series, inviting leading artists and writers to give talks at the Women’s Art Committee’s meetings. In addition to painting and teaching at the Hamilton Technical School, Gordon also took on an additional teaching position at Hamilton’s Ontario Training College for Technical Teachers. Gordon’s husband retired in 1935 due to poor health, and Gordon was appointed head of the art department. She remained in the post until she retired in 1951.

Formal Training in the United States

In the early 1940s, Gordon decided she wanted further formal training in abstraction. She made inquiries about German artist Hans Hofmann’s School of Art in Provincetown, Massachusetts, but did not enrol until 1946. She returned in 1949, 1952 and 1954. Gordon was the first Canadian artist to study under Hofmann and she taught his techniques in Hamilton. Alexandra Luke also studied with Hofmann beginning in 1947. Before she began to study with Hofmann, Gordon took summer classes in 1941 at the Cranbrook Academy of Art in Bloomfield Hills, an affluent Michigan community near Detroit. Cranbrook was known at the time as a respected American institution for the study of visual arts and crafts.

Key Exhibitions

After her training with Hofmann and in Cranbrook, Gordon exhibited regularly in the United States. Like Alexandra Luke, her work was included in the Canadian Women Artists exhibition organized by the Riverside Museum, New York in 1947. (It toured until 1950.) In February 1952, she had a solo exhibition at the Creative Gallery in New York. The following month she had a show in Ann Arbor, Michigan, which was organized by Jean-Paul Slusser, head of the art department at the University of Michigan at Ann Arbor. In May 1952, the exhibition travelled to the Phillips Gallery in Detroit and in June to the Flint Institute of Arts in Michigan. In November 1952, Lawren P. Harris, son of the Group of Seven painter Lawren Harris, arranged for Gordon’s New York solo exhibition to be on display at Mount Allison University in Sackville, New Brunswick. Harris also arranged for the show to travel to the Galerie Agnes Lefort in Montréal.

In 1952, Gordon’s work appeared in the Canadian Abstract Exhibition, which had been spearheaded by Luke. The exhibition played an important role in the formation of Painters Eleven. In 1956, three years after the group was founded, Painters Eleven had an exhibition in New York. The next year, American art critic Clement Greenberg traveled to Toronto to look at works produced by members of Painters Eleven. In 1960, Gordon was offered a retrospective at the Art Gallery of Hamilton. She died of emphysema in November 1961, aged 75, and the retrospective was transformed into a memorial exhibition that opened in March 1963.


Further Reading

  • Iris Nowell, Painters Eleven: The Wild Ones of Canadian Art (2011)